Arnie acts to ban California gay marriages as 'threat to civil order'

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's Governor, has stepped into the national furore over gay marriage, ordering the state's top legal official to take action to stop the issuance of same-sex marriage licences in San Francisco, on the grounds it represented "an imminent threat to civil order".

The Terminator star, who took office last November, made his request to California's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, after a judge in San Francisco again refused to accede to two lawsuits brought by conservative and religious groups on the grounds that same-sex marriage violated state law. The court ruling did not address the substance of the lawsuits, but merely ordered the two suits to be merged "to avoid duplication". Even so, it represented another tactical victory for the gay marriage cause, effectively delaying any action by San Francisco's courts until next month at the earliest, by which time thousands more licences will have been issued - unless Mr Schwarzenegger secures the state-wide ban he is seeking.

In the nine working days since the directive by Mayor Gavin Newsom allowing same-sex marriage licences, more than 3,000 have been issued in San Francisco. From all over the US, gay couples have flocked to the city famous for its embrace of progressive social causes, queuing for hours, even days, for an appointment to receive a licence.

But the issue is moving beyond the West Coast, attracting supporters in unexpected places, and intruding into national politics as a presidential election looms. On Friday, a county near Albuquerque, New Mexico, gave marriage licences to 35 same-sex couples. In that case, however, the New Mexico attorney general swiftly intervened, saying the practice violated state law and ordering it to stop.

But there were signs San Francisco's lead could be followed by other major cities. In perhaps the most startling development, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago - not previously regarded as a proponent of cutting-edge social change - has declared that he would have "no problem" if Chicago's Cook County issued same-sex licences in America's third largest metropolis.

The issue moved centre stage earlier this year when the Massachusetts supreme court ruled that nothing short of legal marriage would fulfil the right of homosexuals to "equal protection" under the state's constitution, thus overturning a state law banning same-sex marriage. But the running is being made in San Francisco. The latest ruling fits the wider strategy of the gay rights movement, as it tries to frame the controversy in legal terms, portraying same-sex marriage as a constitutional and civil rights question rather than as a political issue, which a majority of Americans do not support. Indeed, a California poll last week found that while 58 per cent of people in liberal San Francisco favoured gay marriage, only 44 per cent did so statewide.

Nationally, opposition is far greater. For that reason, Democratic candidates are treating the issue with extreme care. Well aware that the latest push originated in his home state, Senator John Kerry is reiterating that while he favours civil unions for same-sex couples, he is against marriage.

Even so, Republicans are bound to use the dispute to depict Mr Kerry as a "Massachusetts liberal", out of touch with the national mood. President Bush has described the notion of gay marriage as "very troubling", and may soon urge an amendment of the US constitution to outlaw it.

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