Federal Judge Vaughn Walker Wednesday struck down as unconstitutional a state-wide ban on same-sex marriage, setting the stage for a series of appeals in a landmark case likely headed to the US Supreme Court.
Now that Prop. 8 has been overturned, the decision potentially opens the way for resumption of legal marriages between gay and lesbian partners in the nation’s largest state.
In addition, the high-profile case will force the nation and its federal judges to confront the issue of gay civil rights and same-sex marriage. Last month, a federal judge in Boston ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
But these rulings come at a time when many states have been moving to embrace the traditional definition of marriage – as a union between one man and one woman.
In his 135-page ruling, Chief US District Judge Walker said same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry the person of their choosing, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
The judge belittled the motives of supporters of California’s state-wide ballot initiative, Proposition 8, saying they were acting out of “fear or unarticulated dislike of same-sex couples.”
“The evidence shows that, by every available metric, opposite-sex couples are not better than their same-sex counterparts; instead, as partners, parents and citizens, opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples are equal,” he said. “Proposition 8 violates the equal protection clause because it does not treat them equally.”
Judge Walker made the finding in a case filed by a two gay couples who want to get married. They challenged the constitutionality of the ballot initiative, arguing that it interfered with their fundamental rights.
Proposition 8 overturned a May 2008 California Supreme Court ruling, establishing for the first time a state constitutional right to gay marriage. The ballot initiative was introduced to reverse that decision. It said in part: “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The gay marriage ban was approved by 52 percent of voters with 48 percent opposed.
“That the majority of California voters supported Proposition 8 is irrelevant,” Walker said. “Fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”
Walker found that the ballot initiative violated the Constitution’s due process clause and its guarantee of equal treatment. At the heart of Walker’s decision is his conclusion that there is no rational basis to exclude gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage.
Supporters of Proposition 8 had argued that the government has a rational reason to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. They said because marriage is likely to result in children, the state wants to encourage both birth parents to raise their children within a stable household.
Walker rejected the proponents’ rationale, saying that same-sex and opposite-sex couples “are of equal quality.” He added: “The evidence shows beyond any doubt that parents’ genders are irrelevant to children’s developmental outcomes.”
The judge said supporters of the ban were clearly motivated by moral disapproval of homosexuality. “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians,” Walker wrote. “The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”
He also rejected arguments that California should proceed slowly in developing policies on gay marriage and that officials should defer to tradition. “Tradition alone,” he said, “cannot form a rational basis for a law.”
Walker wrote that the idea of restricting marriage to one man and one woman was “an artifact of a foregone notion that men and women fulfill different roles in civic life.”
Rather than advancing a state interest, the judge said, Proposition 8 harms the state’s interest in equality. “It mandates that men and women be treated differently based only on antiquated and discredited notions of gender.”
The judge said that based on evidence produced at the trial, same-sex marriage would have no impact on society or the institution of marriage. He said the state of California had “no interest in waiting and no practical need to wait to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”
Supporters of Proposition 8 had urged Walker, before he announced his ruling on Wednesday, to stay the ruling pending the outcome of appeals. The judge did not take that action. The lawyers are expected to ask the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a stay.