SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The California Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriages on Thursday in a major victory for gay rights advocates that will allow homosexual couples to marry in the most populous U.S. state.
The court found that California laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples are at odds with rights guaranteed by the state's constitution. Opponents of gay marriage vowed to contest the ruling with a statewide ballot measure for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages.
The ruling would allow California to be the second state, after Massachusetts, to allow gay marriage. Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont permit same-sex civil unions that grant largely similar rights as those for married couples but lack the full, federal legal protections of marriage.
The California court's 4-3 decision overturns state laws prohibiting same-sex nuptials and is likely to influence other states expected to rule on gay marriage.
The state's constitution "guarantees same-sex couples the same substantive constitutional rights as opposite-sex couples to choose one's life partner and enter with that person into a committed, officially recognized, and protected family relationship," the court said.
Gay marriage has been one of the most divisive issues in recent American politics and has mobilized millions of socially conservative Christian voters to support candidates such as President George W. Bush who oppose it.
In San Francisco, a bastion of gay rights with its large and vocal gay community, people were quick to react to the landmark ruling and started making marriage plans.
Susan Graham, 46, sent a text message to her female partner of 10 years proposing marriage. She responded: "Are you kidding? Absolutely."
Bruce Ivie, 51, and partner David Bowers, 61, were the first people at the San Francisco court clerk's office to obtain a copy of the decision.
"Sweet," Ivie said on finding the decision's bottom line on the state's ban on gay marriage. "The second paragraph says it all to me: It's unconstitutional."
Californians in 2000 voted to reaffirm a 1977 state law defining marriage as union of a man and woman. But four years later, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom challenged that law by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, which led to the court battle decided on Thursday by the state Supreme Court.
Newsom said his controversial policy had been vindicated and that he plans to resume issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples in coming weeks.
"It's an exhilarating feeling. That's the best I can describe it," Newsom said. "At the end of the day, this is about real people and their lives and their families, and it doesn't get much more personal than that."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had opposed San Francisco's marriage licenses for gays, said he would uphold the state supreme court's decision.
"Also, as I have said in the past, I will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state supreme court ruling," he said.
A dissenting opinion by Judge Marvin Baxter and joined by Judge Ming Chin said a narrow majority of the court had carved a constitutional right out of existing equal-protection laws, overstepping legislative powers in what amounted to "legal jujitsu." A third justice dissented on different grounds.
"It simply does not have the right to erase, then recast, the age-old definition of marriage, as virtually all societies have understood it, in order to satisfy its own contemporary notions of equality and justice," Baxter wrote.
But the Judicial Council of California, which oversees state courts, said the ruling is final in 30 days and municipalities must prepare to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Opponents of gay marriage said they will ask voters in the November election to endorse a constitutional amendment on the state ballot that would supersede the court's ruling by defining marriage exclusively as between a man and woman.
"These out-of-touch California judges will not have the last word on marriage," said Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage California.
Both sides of the debate agreed the California court's decision raised the stakes in the national debate over gay marriage. Newsom predicted it would resonate across the United States: "As California goes, so goes the nation," he said.
Randy Thomasson of Campaign for Children and Families said that scenario would further energize opponents of gay marriage.
"If these judges get away with it, other state supreme courts may get the same idea they can make up the law," Thomasson said.
Additional reporting by Amanda Beck and Eric Auchard in San Francisco, Suzanne Hurt in Sacramento and Mark Egan in New York; Editing by Mary Milliken and Philip Barbara