A federal judge in San Francisco Wednesday overturned Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage. (view the ruling)
In a 138-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker said the voter-approved initiative violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.
Walker ruled in a lawsuit filed in 2009 by two same-sex couples. The case was the nation's first federal trial on a challenge under the U.S. Constitution to a state ban on gay marriage.
Proposition 8 "unconstitutionally burdens the fundamental right to marry and creates an irrational classification in the basis of sexual orientation," Walker wrote.
Walker said at issue in the case was whether the plaintiffs sought to exercise the fundamental right to marry or if because they are couples of the same sex, they sought recognition of a new right.
Despite several changes throughout the nation's history to the definition of marriage, the fundamental right to marry has not changed, nor did those changes damage society or the institution of marriage, he said.
The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and join together to form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage, he wrote.
Heterosexual marriage was once a male-dominated institution but now recognizes women as equals. The institution of marriage did not become different because marriage became compatible with gender equality," he pointed out.
"Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses' obligations to each other and to their dependents. Gender no longer forms as essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals," he said.
"The exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed," he said.
The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry, Walker wrote.
"Never has the state inquired into the procreative capacity or intent before issuing a marriage license," he added.
Race restrictions on marital partners were once common in most states but are now seen as archaic, shameful or even bizarre, he pointed out.
"The court recognized that race restrictions, despite their historical prevalence, stood in stark contrast to the concepts of liberty and choice inherent in the right to marry," he said.
Michael Wald, a Stanford law professor, had predicted the court would find Proposition 8 unconstitutional. The decision reflects that the plaintiffs demonstrated that same-sex couples fulfill all of the goals of marriage.
"It's a very strong statement. The defendants failed to introduce credible evidence that there are meaningful differences between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples," he said.
There were no credible differences in parenting, family, quality of the relationship or social stability -- arguments the Proposition 8 proponents used to claim the inherent inferiority of same-sex couples to heterosexual couples.
But, Walker said, "There is no justification for treating same-sex couples differently."
Proponents of Proposition 8 also did not present any credible evidence that allowing same-sex marriages would have any negative effects of society or the institution of marriage.
The state cannot have an interest in disadvantaging an unpopular minority simply because the group is unpopular or that the majority of people find the group distasteful on religious and moral grounds, he said.
Supporters of Proposition 8 have said in a filing late Tuesday that they will appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
On appeal, the defendants will most probably argue that the court should reaffirm the traditional basis of marriage, according to Wald. They will also probably try to argue that the judge made errors in his findings.
But in most appeals cases, there is a presumption in favor of the lower courts' findings of fact, he said.
Andy Pugno, general counsel for ProtectMarriage.com, the official proponents of Proposition 8, said the ruling was "clearly a disappointment.
"The judge's invalidation of the votes of over seven million Californians violates binding legal precedent and short-circuits the democratic process. But this is not the end of our fight to uphold the will of the people for traditional marriage," he said.
"It is disturbing that the trial court, in order to strike down Prop 8, has literally accused the majority of California voters of having ill and discriminatory intent when casting their votes for Prop 8. But the reality is that Prop 8 was simply about restoring and strengthening the traditional definition of marriage as the unique relationship of a man and a woman, for the benefit of children, families and society.
"Federal precedent is clear that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage. To prevail in the end, our opponents have a very difficult task of convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to abandon precedent and invent a new constitutional right," he said.
Locally, gay and lesbian couples said they were overjoyed with the court decision.
"My husband Rob and I were thrilled when we heard the news. We know that the journey is not yet over and we understand that the other side that is willing to take it to the Supreme Court," said Palo Alto resident Miles McCormick, who married his husband Robert Parish seven years ago in a church with over 300 people in attendance.
"I think this is an excellent sign. I was most impressed by Laura Bush recently saying on Larry King Live that she could not agree with her husband regarding the gay marriage issue and that she thinks the entire thing is highly generational," he said.
On Aug. 6, both sides will submit their responses to a defense request for a stay on the ruling pending an appeal. Walker granted a temporary stay until the court decides whether to allow the stay through the appeals process.