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(05-26) 10:29 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- California voters legally outlawed same-sex marriage when they approved Proposition 8 in November, but the constitutional amendment did not dissolve the unions of 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who wed before the measure took effect, the state Supreme Court ruled today.
The 6-1 decision was issued by the same court that declared a year ago that a state law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman violated the right to choose one's spouse and discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation.
Prop. 8 undid that ruling. The author of last year's 4-3 decision, Chief Justice Ronald George, said today that the voters were within their rights to approve a constitutional amendment redefining marriage to include only male-female couples.
Justice Carlos Moreno, in a lone dissent, said a majority should not be allowed to deprive a minority of fundamental rights by passing an initiative.
The justices ruled unanimously that Prop. 8 was not retroactive and that gay and lesbian couples who relied on the court's May 2008 ruling to get married before the Nov. 4 election will remain legally wed.
Prop. 8, which declared that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California, passed with a 52 percent majority after an intense and expensive campaign. Sponsors, mainly affiliated with Christian conservative groups, raised nearly $40 million for the measure and opponents more than $45 million - combined, a record for a ballot measure on a social issue anywhere in the nation.
The ruling, the court's third major decision on same-sex marriage in five years, may be the last word from the state's legal system on the issue. But the matter is far from settled in the political arena. Gay-rights advocates, anticipating the decision, have discussed putting another constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2010 or 2012 to try to repeal Prop. 8.
Meanwhile, same-sex marriage has been legalized by the Supreme Courts of Iowa and Connecticut and the legislatures of Vermont and Maine, joining Massachusetts, whose high court issued the first such ruling in 2003. Similar legislation is pending in New Hampshire and New York.
California's legal battle dates back to February 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized the city clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Nearly 4,000 weddings took place in the next month before the state Supreme Court ordered a halt, then voided the marriages in August 2004 and found unanimously that Newsom had no authority to disregard state law.
The city and a number of couples quickly returned to court and sued to overturn the law. They won in Superior Court, lost in an appeals court, and won in the state's high court on May 15, 2008 - but by then, their opponents had already submitted more than 1 million signatures qualifying Prop. 8 for the November ballot.
This time, the issue before the justices was whether the voters' power to amend the Constitution by initiative.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuits were two groups of same-sex couples, some already married and some thwarted by Prop. 8, along with an array of local governments led by San Francisco. They argued that a measure eliminating fundamental rights exceeds the scope of a constitutional amendment and amounts to a revision, which needs a two-thirds legislative vote or approval from delegates at a state constitutional convention to reach the ballot.
Attorney General Jerry Brown, who usually defends state laws in court, joined Prop. 8's opponents and argued that "inalienable rights" in the California Constitution cannot be repealed by majority vote.
Prop. 8's sponsors noted that the court had declared ballot measures to be revisions only twice. The court has rejected similar challenges to such far-reaching measures as a legislative term-limits initiative, the Proposition 13 tax cut and the reinstatement of the death penalty.
Backers of the measure argued that the people are the highest political authority in California and the court should defer to their judgment.