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California high court overturns gay marriage ban

Thursday's ruling makes it the second state to legalize same-sex marriage.

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Voters in Florida – a potential battleground state – will vote on a ballot initiative in November to ban same-sex marriage that could galvanize conservatives to vote.

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There's also a question mark around the reaction of evangelical voters, who have recently begun to drift away from the GOP. There are reasons to suspect this ruling won't affect that shift greatly, says Ivan Strenski, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside. "We know that that shift among Evangelicals is partly a generational one, and we know that in the younger generations, they don't care about this."

The most immediate battle ahead will be in November, when Californians are likely to get the chance to vote on an initiative that would effectively reverse the court ruling. Sponsors of a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage have gathered more than 1.1 million signatures – enough to put it on the ballot.

Californians have split nearly evenly for years on the question. In June 2007, 45 percent favored allowing gay marriage and 49 percent opposed it, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

"Democrats are strongly in favor, Republicans are strongly opposed. It's a very sharp political divide on this question," says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president.

The case arose from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's instruction to the city clerk in 2004 to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples. In the month that followed, nearly 4,000 same-sex couples got married before California's high court stepped in to halt the marriages and ultimately nullify them.

That brought lawsuits from some of the couples. The trial court found that codes barring same-sex marriages violated equal protection guarantees in the state's constitution. An appeals court reversed the decision, saying legal discrimination could be avoided through domestic partnership arrangements.

Writing for the majority in Thursday's ruling, Chief Justice Ron George found "that retention of the traditional definition of marriage does not constitute a state interest sufficiently compelling, under the strict scrutiny equal protection standard, to justify withholding that status from same-sex couples."

Gay marriage opponents are incensed. "On a 4-3 vote, the California Supreme Court has destroyed the civil institution of marriage between a man and a woman," said Randy Thomasson, president of Campaign for Children and Families. "This arrogant judicial activism took 121 pages of contorted logic to explain ... [and] should be short-lived."