A federal district court judge in California has ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage in the state violates the U.S. Constitution. Wednesday's ruling is the latest development in what is expected to be an extended legal battle.
San Francisco Judge Vaughn Walker wrote in his 136-page decision that the measure which bans gay marriage fails to provide a rational basis for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The judge wrote that California has no interest in discriminating against homosexuals, and the ban prevents the state from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis.
He also said California has not suffered any demonstrated harm as a result of the 18,000 marriage licenses it has issued to homosexual couples.
Activist Chad Griffin is the board president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is one of the groups that filed the lawsuit challenging the ban on same same-sex marriage. In a news conference in California after the ruling, Griffin said fundamental rights are guarded and sustained by the Constitution, not by elected officials who brand same-sex marriage as harmful to society.
"And after a lengthy trial, a fair trial, the court rejected the false logic that has been used for so many years to rationalize that blatant discrimination. But this trial did more than expose that false logic. It embraced the fundamental American values of freedom and fairness," he said.
That two-week trial he is referring to dates back to January of this year, when gay rights and civil rights activists brought a lawsuit in U.S. district court on behalf of two same-sex couples seeking to overturn a gay marriage ban called Proposition 8. California voters passed that measure in 2008 by a slim margin -- 52 to 48 percent.
While the state of California was the target of the suit, it declined to fight it in court, so private legal groups stepped in.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown has said he agrees with the plaintiffs that homosexuals do have the right to marry. After the ruling Wednesday, he issued a statement praising the decision, saying a ban on gay marriage violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution.
California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, also issued a statement saying the court's decision affirms the full legal protections and safeguards he believes everyone deserves.
But other politicians disagree.
U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican representing the southern state of Alabama, sharply criticized the ruling as evidence of liberal judicial activism. "It is an example of a judge feeling that they know better than the people what higher and better values are," he said.
In the U.S., individual states have jurisdiction over marriage. Same-sex couples can legally wed in the northeastern states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire, the midwestern state of Iowa and the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C.
California permitted same-sex marriage for five months in 2008, after the state Supreme Court invalidated an earlier law that prohibited gay marriage. Voters passed Proposition 8 by a narrow margin, amending the state constitution and ending the practice.
While the judge's ruling Wednesday overturned the ban on same-sex marriage in California, homosexual couples cannot start marrying there. In a separate move, the judge issued a stay order, which prevents same-sex couples from marrying while proponents of the ban appeal Wednesday's decision.
The case now goes up the judicial ladder to a circuit court, and possibly from there, to the U.S. Supreme Court, if the high court justices agree to hear it.
The conservative Family Research Council, which is involved in the appeal, criticized the court's decision Wednesday. The council's president, Tony Perkins, issued a statement saying that even if the decision is upheld by the appeals court, the council is confident it can help win the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.