Californian court annuls 4,000 gay weddings

California's highest court yesterday annulled the 3,955 same-sex weddings performed in San Francisco this year, in a ruling that will inflame passions all the way from the city's influential gay community to the presidential campaign trail.

The California supreme court ruled unanimously that San Francisco's ambitious young mayor, Gavin Newsom, overstepped his authority by disregarding state law, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and redetermining the constitutionality of that law. By a vote of five to two, the justices also ruled that the marriages in February and March this year - an act of political disobedience known as San Francisco's Winter of Love that brought international attention - should be considered void.

"It would not be prudent or wise," the majority wrote, "to leave the validity of these marriages in limbo for what might be a substantial period, given the potential confusion (for third parties, such as employers, insurers, or other governmental entities, as well as for the affected couples)..."

The court did not say Mayor Newsom was wrong to assert that denying gay couples the right to marry was a violation of the equal protection clauses of both the Californian and the US constitutions. But they did say the determination was for the courts to make, in hearings in the legal system.

The censure of Mayor Newsom had been widely expected, since it was the same court which issued last March's injunction stopping the procession of gay couples to San Francisco's City Hall. The cancellation of the marriage certificates is a grave disappointment to the couples and to the many advocates who had hailed Mayor Newsom as a courageous trailblazer for gay rights. They were planning a big demonstration last night in the city's gay mecca, the Castro district, and another outside City Hall.

The gay marriage issue has featured frequently in the presidential election debate, tripping both major candidates. President George Bush has tried to make political capital out of his adamant opposition to gay marriage, but failed at the first hurdle in his efforts to sponsor a constitutional amendment forever outlawing it. His Democratic Party challenger John Kerry has been pushed into an awkward compromise position, stating his own opposition to gay marriage while endorsing civil unions for same-sex couples.

The issue has caused fraught debate, with Massachusetts' highest court sanctioning gay marriage in a landmark ruling in May and several states, most recently Missouri, passing laws banning it.

In San Francisco, the gay community is confident they will prevail in the end. One lesbian couple, Cissie Bonini and Lora Pertle, hung their matching wedding gowns on the wall in their bedroom, realising they might one day have to get them down again.

"We'll be married as many times as we need to for it to be legal," Ms Bonini told the San Francisco Chronicle.