California Supreme Court legalises gay marriage

California’s Supreme Court has declared that gay couples in the US’s most populous state can marry – a monumental but perhaps short-lived victory for the gay rights movement that was greeted with tears, hugs, kisses and at least one instant proposal of matrimony.

Same-sex couples could tie the knot in as little as a month. But the window could close soon after – religious and social conservatives are pressing to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would undo the Supreme Court ruling and ban gay marriage.

“Essentially, this boils down to love. We love each other. We now have equal rights under the law,” declared a jubilant Robin Tyler, a plaintiff in the case along with her partner.

A crowd of people raised their fists in triumph inside San Francisco City Hall and people wrapped themselves in the rainbow-coloured gay-pride flag outside the courthouse. In the Castro, long the centre of the gay community in San Francisco, Tim Oviatt wept as he watched the news on TV.

“I’ve been waiting for this all my life. This is a life-affirming moment,” he said.

By the afternoon, gay and lesbian couples had already started lining up at San Francisco City Hall to make appointments to get marriage licenses. In West Hollywood, supporters planned to serve “wedding cake” at an evening celebration.

James Dobson, chairman of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, called the ruling an outrage.

“It will be up to the people of California to preserve traditional marriage by passing a constitutional amendment. … Only then can they protect themselves from this latest example of judicial tyranny,” he said.

In its 4-3 ruling, the Republican-dominated high court struck down state laws against same-sex marriage and said domestic partnerships that provide many of the rights and benefits of matrimony were not enough.

“In contrast to earlier times, our state now recognises that an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority in ringing language that delighted gay rights activists.

Massachusetts in 2004 became the first, and so far only, state to legalise gay marriage; more than 9,500 couples have taken advantage of the law. But the California ruling is considered monumental by virtue of the state’s size – 38 million out of a US population of 302 million – and its historical role as the vanguard of many social and cultural changes that have swept the country since the Second World War.

California has an estimated 108,734 same-sex households, according to 2006 census figures.

Unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license, meaning gays nationwide are likely to flock to the state to be wed, said Jennifer Pizer, an attorney who worked on the case.

The ultimate reach of the ruling could be limited, however, since most states do not recognise same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Nor does the federal government.

Opponents of gay marriage could also ask the high court to reconsider. If the court rejects such a request, same-sex couples could start getting married in 30 days, the time it typically takes for the justices’ opinions to become final.

The case was set in motion in 2004 when the mayor of San Francisco – the unofficial capital of gay America – threw City Hall open to gay couples to get married in a calculated challenge to California law. Four thousand wed before the Supreme Court put a halt to the practice after a month.

Two dozen gay couples then sued, along with the city and gay rights organisations.

Ten states now offer some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples – in most cases, domestic partnerships or civil unions. In the past few years, the courts in New York, New Jersey and Washington state have refused to allow gay marriage.

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