SAN FRANCISCO California's Supreme Court said on Wednesday that it would issue a long-awaited decision on Thursday on whether it is constitutional for the the nation's most populous state to bar gays from marrying.
A decision by the seven-judge panel -- expected at 10 a.m./1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) on Thursday -- could have significant impact nationwide on an issue that has divided communities across the United States.
During oral arguments in March the judges appeared divided, with some asking whether the California legislature in Sacramento might be better placed to decide whether matrimony should be limited to a man and a woman.
Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, long a center of gay life, forced the issue by suddenly issuing gay marriage licenses in February 2004. Courts later ruled those weddings had no legal validity, but the case has prompted the California Supreme Court to consider the underlying issue.
Californians in 2000 approved a ballot measure defining marriage as the union of man and woman. Domestic partnership legislation as of 2005 gave registered gay couples many of the same privileges enjoyed by married couples.
The California Supreme Court is considered politically moderate, with six judges appointed by Republican governors and one by a Democrat.
State supreme courts in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont have ruled against limiting the benefits of marriage to a man and a woman. Massachusetts is the only U.S. state to allow gay marriage, although New Jersey and Vermont have civil union laws similar to those in California.
(Reporting by Adam Tanner; Editing by Sandra Maler)
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