The California Supreme Court ruled Tuesday to uphold a statewide ballot initiative that limits marriage to heterosexual couples, while at the same time preserving 18,000 same-sex marriages that took place before the measure was passed last year.
In a highly anticipated decision that comes as a growing number of states legalize gay marriage and support for same-sex marriages grows in opinion polls, the court rejected the primary argument against Proposition 8 – that the measure amounts to an unconstitutional revision of the state's charter.
However, writing for the 6-to-1 majority opinion, Chief Justice Ronald George said that only the term "marriage" was being withheld from same-sex couples and that otherwise they would continue to enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples.
"Contrary to petitioners' assertion, Proposition 8 does not entirely repeal or abrogate the aspect of a same-sex couple's state constitutional right of privacy and due process…. Instead, the measure carves out a narrow and limited exception to these state constitutional rights, reserving the official designation of the term 'marriage' for the union of opposite-sex couples as a matter of state constitutional law," Justice George wrote.
How to determine that couples in civil unions and married couples receive those same rights will be the challenge ahead, say legal experts.
"The court has acknowledged that the principle of equality exists and cannot be set aside by the voters [and] that all the people of California did was reserve the name 'marriage' for those unions between a man and a woman," says Doug Kmiec, a law professor at California's Pepperdine University, who supported Prop. 8 on the grounds that it upheld the religious origins of marriage.
The court is "tolerating this different nomenclature based on the will of the people, but the will of the people is not the end of the question," he says. "The net result of today's opinion is that there will be at least two different classes of people…. That difference is held quite intimately by gay couples."
Right to change constitution
The court's decision has been met with protest by gay-rights groups and praise by supporters of Prop. 8, which came about last year after the state Supreme Court ruled that a California law limiting marriage to a man and woman violated the constitution. About 18,000 couples married in the months after that ruling last May and before Prop. 8 passed with 52 percent of the vote in November.
In Tuesday's ruling, Justice George noted that while the justices may not personally believe that Prop. 8 should be "part of the California Constitution," the court "is limited to interpreting and applying the principles and rules embodied in the California Constitution, setting aside our own personal beliefs and values."
"In a sense, petitioners' and the attorney general's complaint is that it is just too easy to amend the California Constitution through the initiative process. But it is not a proper function of this court to curtail that process; we are constitutionally bound to uphold it," the ruling said.
However, he wrote, Prop. 8 does not change the court's original ruling when it comes to protecting the rights of same-sex couples.
"The California Supreme Court arrived at the only correct conclusion available: The people of California have a fundamental right to amend their own constitution," said Austin Nimocks, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that opposes same-sex marriages, in a statement. "This is the second time California has voted to protect marriage. Once again, when marriage goes before the voters, they affirm that marriage means one man and one woman. All 30 states that have voted on whether to affirm marriage as one man and one woman in their state constitutions have done so."
But gay rights groups say they are already planning to fight Tuesday's ruling – possibly with a proposition of their own.
"Today's decision is a terrible blow to same-sex couples who share the same hopes and dreams for their families as other Californians," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in a statement. "But our path ahead is now clear. We will go back to the ballot box and we will win."
In the lone dissenting view from the court, Justice Carlos Moreno said that Prop. 8 "represents an unprecedented instance of a majority of voters altering the meaning of the equal protection clause by modifying the California Constitution to require deprivation of a fundamental right on the basis of a suspect classification."
Same-sex couples to continue fight
Gay rights groups had gathered across California Tuesday morning to hear the decision and many were planning protest marches for later in the day.
"I'm disappointed by the decision because it puts me in a minority of a minority. I'm happy that 18,000 gay marriages remain valid, but now we feel like second-class citizens, that our marriage is not as valid as others. I'm going to continue to work for gay marriage by going door to door, and I hope to get it on the ballot again in 2010," says Los Angeles resident Eric Manriquez, who married his partner, Juan Rivera, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages last year.
"I hope it doesn't slow the momentum for [gay marriage] in other states. I don't think it should. Why would some other state behave backward just because California did?" asks Mr. Rivera.
Same-sex marriages have gained greater public acceptance since Massachusetts became the first US state in 2004 to legally issue marriage licenses to gay couples. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released last month showed that 49 percent of Americans now say same-sex marriages should be legal, compared with 36 percent three years ago.
"Public opinion is moving in the direction of fairness and equality, and it is only a matter of time until the freedom to marry will again be secure for all Californians," said Jenny Pizer of Lambda Legal, one of the groups that challenged Prop. 8.