WASHINGTON (ABP) — Dealing a blow to the gay-rights movement, California's Supreme Court Aug. 12 ruled that San Francisco officials violated state law when they performed approximately 4,000 same-sex marriages earlier this year.
The court also ruled that the marriages, which were performed between Feb 11 and March 12, when the court ordered a halt to them, are null and void.
However, the ruling did not determine whether the California ban on same-sex marriage violates the state's constitution. A lawsuit on that issue is still in a lower court and is probably a year away from reaching the California Supreme Court.
On the first question — whether San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and other city officials overstepped their authority when they began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in February — the seven-member court ruled unanimously.
Newsom argued that a state law banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional because the California Constitution guarantees equal treatment to all citizens. The court disagreed, saying local officials don't have the authority to rule on the constitutionality of a state law before the state's courts do.
“[A]lthough the present proceeding may be viewed by some as presenting primarily a question of the substantive legal rights of same-sex couples, in actuality the legal issue before us implicates the interest of all individuals in ensuring that public officials execute their official duties in a manner that respects the limits of the authority granted to them as officeholders,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in the court's opinion.
On the second question — whether to nullify the marriages already performed, the court split 5-2. One of the reasons the two justices cited for their dissent was the fact the court had earlier barred the couples married in San Francisco from intervening in the case.
“I would refrain from determining here, in a proceeding from which the persons whose marriages are at issue have been excluded, the validity of the marriages solemnized under those licenses,” wrote Justice Joyce Kennard in her dissent. “That determination should be made after the constitutionality of California laws restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples has been authoritatively resolved through judicial proceedings now pending in the courts of California.”
In Washington, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage hailed the ruling, while a gay-rights group tried to downplay its importance.
“This is a sweeping defeat for all those seeking to use the courts to redefine marriage,” said Pat Trueman, legal counsel for the conservative Family Research Council, in a press release. “If they can't win in California, arguably one of the most liberal jurisdictions, they will have difficulty everywhere else they try. The court's precedent is now a major stumbling block for all those who want to redefine marriage.”
But the head of the nation's largest gay-rights group said the ruling was not as sweeping as Trueman would suggest.
“This is not the end of the fight to make same-sex couples safer and more secure,” said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a press release issued shortly after the ruling. “While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court ruled the city lacked authority to issue the licenses, this case does not speak to the issue of whether California's discriminatory marriage ban for same-sex couples is unconstitutional.”
But waiting may not be an option for Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, longtime lesbian activists who were the first same-sex couple married in San Francisco. “Del is 83 years old and I am 79,” Lyon said, according to the Associated Press. “After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.”