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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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Public support nationally for gay marriage grew steadily throughout the late 1990s and into the early part of this decade. That changed in 2003, following the US Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, which struck down laws against sodomy. Then the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the state.

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These decisions raised the visibility of the issue and rallied opponents, says Mr. Doherty with Pew. From July 2003 to February 2004, support nationally for gay marriage dropped from 38 percent to 30 percent, and opposition spiked 10 points to 63 percent.

In response to the court actions, activists placed measures to ban gay marriage on the November 2004 ballots in 11 states. Some – most notably Ohio – occurred in key battleground states in the presidential election.

These ballot initiatives helped mobilize voters who were more likely to vote for President Bush, according to research by Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University.

"Other issues may have kept Bush even with [Democrat John] Kerry in Ohio, but gay marriage may very well have put Bush over the top in the state," Dr. Donovan found.

More than half the states have amended their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriages. And three state supreme courts have ruled against a constitutional right to gay marriage. Connecticut's high court is expected to rule on the issue within months.

"No state is immunized categorically or as a settled matter to California marriages today. They may think they are," says Mr. Kmiec, "but I don't think they are free from legal challenge."

States that actually amended their constitution, as opposed to passing a statute, will have a greater likelihood of sustaining their rejection of California marriages, he says.

Gay marriage laws in the US

The Supreme Court has not taken a case on gay marriage, leaving states to decide:
• Massachusetts and now California are the only two states to allow gay marriage.
• Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont permit same-sex civil unions while Oregon permits domestic partnerships with similar state rights as married couples, but without the full, federal legal protections of marriage.
Maine, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Washington offer gay couples some legal rights.
• Currently, 45 states explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage, including 26 with constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman.

Sources: Wire services; Human Rights Campaign