Declaring that it "disadvantages gays and lesbians without any rational justification," a court in San Francisco has overturned California's ban on same-sex marriage, handing victory to progressives in a long-running legal battle likely to end up in the US Supreme Court.
Federal judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8, a law approved by voters at the 2008 election which defined marriage as a "union between a man and a woman" should be struck out because it violates a series of equality laws enshrined in the Constitution. The ruling, issued via email yesterday afternoon, was prevented from taking effect when lawyers representing opponents of gay rights filed an appeal with a higher court.
Judge Walker, who sat through 13 days of argument, issued a surprisingly stern assessment of the legal standing of Proposition 8, which had passed with the support of 53 per cent of Californian voters – and sizeable campaign donations from out-of-state religious organisations – on election day in November 2008.
During the trial, he heard contributions from 18 expert witnesses, about topics ranging from the fitness of gay parents and religious views on homosexuality, to the historical meaning of marriage and the political influence of the gay rights movement. At the request of opponents of same-sex marriage, the trial was not televised.
Judge Walker noted in his 136-page ruling that "same-sex love and intimacy are well-documented in human history," and declared that the law "does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples".
The ruling makes it all the more likely that a lawsuit regarding same-sex marriage will eventually be considered by the US Supreme Court, since a similar battle is also making its way through the Massachusetts legal system. If that happens, then the decision will apply to the entire nation, rather than individual states.
Supporters of gay rights immediately praised the judge's "important" decision. "The language and the logic of this ruling makes clear that there's no good reason to deny committed gay couples the right to marry," said Evan Wolfson, of the pressure group Freedom to Marry. "It was specific to California, but the logic applies to the whole of the United States."
Judge Walker was appointed by Ronald Reagan and promoted to his current position by President Bush. However opponents of gay marriage described his allegedly biased handling of the case as "disturbing".
"We expected nothing different from Judge Vaughn Walker, after the biased way he conducted this trial," said Brian Brown, president of National Organisation for Marriage (NOM), whose press release described Judge Walker as "openly gay".
"Never in the history of America has a federal judge ruled that there is a federal constitutional right to same sex marriage. The reason for this is simple – there isn't!"
Five other US states allow same-sex weddings, though California, as the nation's most populous, is considered a bellwether.
Though new weddings will not be permitted there for the time being, the unions of same-sex couples who married during the five months leading up to the vote on Proposition 8, when it was legal, will remain valid.