A California court's ruling that gay marriage is constitutional in the state has given new fodder to both sides waging one of the nation's most complex and emotional debates.
For supporters of gay marriage, the decision is a boost as they press their cause in other states. Opponents of gay marriage, meanwhile, have vowed to appeal this and other rulings, while also planning to take their case to state legislatures.
Indeed right now, the nation's courts and the legislatures, in general, have been deciding the legitimacy of gay marriage on opposite tracks. The courts have tended to rule in favor of gay couples, finding their rights are violated if they are not granted the same protections and responsibilities as heterosexuals. At the same, and often in response to such rulings, state legislatures, as well as popular referendums, have voted to ban gay unions, contending they are a threat to traditional marriage.
The intensity of the debate, combined with the relatively slow way in which it's being resolved, is reflective of the way the nation has dealt with controversial social issues in the past. For instance, supporters of gay marriage point out that it was two decades after a California court ruled a ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional that the US Supreme Court concurred, in 1967.
For supporters of gay marriage, the parallel with the civil rights movement is heartening. After all, it's been almost 15 years since the Hawaii Supreme Court first ruled in favor of gay marriage. Now lower courts in both New York and California have called on the civil rights battles of the past to justify their rulings in favor of gay marriage.
But opponents say that comparing gay marriage with the civil rights movement is comparing apples and oranges. They believe the rulings that forbade polygamy provide a better parallel.
Yet either way, scholars say past battles over deeply emotional social issues provide a good road map for at least understanding the current debate. "California is a bellwether state - it started the no-fault divorce revolution," says Bill Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation in Provo, Utah, a legal-research nonprofit organization opposed to gay marriage. "We are watching it very carefully."
In Monday's ruling, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the equal-protection clause. "Simply put, same-sex marriage cannot be prohibited solely because California has always done so before," the ruling continued.
The decision was a victory for advocates of gay marriage, in particular because of Judge Kramer's reliance on logic from previous civil rights cases.
"All of those prior issues were deemed to be incredibly divisive and intractable in their times, but eventually the country came to a consensus," says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Opponents have called the ruling "mind boggling" and an "attack on marriage." They argue that marriage is a unique institution that should be defined as solely between a man and a woman to protect the upbringing of children. They dismiss studies that have found that children do well as long as there are two loving parents, regardless of their gender. Instead, they point to studies that show children do best with both a father and a mother.
They've also pledged to fight in the California Legislature and others across the country to roll back court rulings in favor of same-sex marriages.
"Every time you have a judicial ruling, it lights a fire that fuels a locomotive on the legislative track," says Carrie Gordon Earll, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Advocates of gay marriage believe that time is on their side. While they acknowledge they've had setbacks on legislative fronts, they note that public opinion is now moving in favor or granting same-sex couples some rights. They also argue the legitimacy of same-sex unions in Massachusetts and Vermont will prove to be beacons for the whole nation.
"It's like showing the lie to the right-wing rhetoric," says Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda, a gay-rights legal-defense fund. "Marriage has not ended, and civilization has not ended."
But opponents are just as adamant that their side will prevail. They note that more than a dozen other states are now considering banning gay marriage.
"I'm not arguing that the sky will fall tomorrow, but there will be subtle changes and messages that would be sent," says Mr. Duncan. "Those messages in the long run will not be helpful to our society."
Opponents have 60 days to appeal the California ruling.