SAN FRANCISCO — Supporters of marriage equality are celebrating this week, after the California Supreme Court’s historic May 15 decision that a ban on marriage between same-sex couples is unconstitutional discrimination.

In a decision some observers liken to the same court’s pioneering 1948 ruling recognizing interracial couples’ right to marry, the court ruled, 4-3, that California can no longer bar lesbian and gay couples from marrying.

California thus becomes the second state, after Massachusetts, to recognize gay couples’ right to wed. The ruling is to take effect after 30 days.

Six of the court’s seven justices are Republicans appointed by Republican governors.

The decision drafted by Chief Justice Ronald George said, “In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry — and their central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful and satisfying life as a full member of society — the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples, without regard to their sexual orientation.”

The court said that “in contrast to earlier times,” California now recognizes that the ability to build a loving, long-term relationship and to raise children is not linked to sexual orientation, and that sexual orientation is not a legitimate reason to deny legal rights. Thus, the state constitution “must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples.”

Roberto Ordeñana, director of community programs at the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, called the decision “a historic victory for all Californians who cherish fairness and opportunity.” He said he believes people will understand that “providing the opportunity for two people to receive the dignity and support that come with marriage is something all of us should have.”

Meredith Fenton, national program director at Colage, a national movement for children and adults with gay, bisexual or transgender parents, called the ruling “very exciting for youth with gay or lesbian parents … to know that your family has the right to the same respect that every other family has.”

She said children at Colage tell of being taunted by schoolyard bullies: “Your parents can’t get married.”

Fenton said she always felt it was unfair that her father, who is heterosexual, could celebrate his very committed relationship with his wife while her mother, a lesbian, could not do the same with her partner.

Fenton, Ordeñana and Donna Cartwright, national communications director for the AFL-CIO constituency group Pride at Work, agree that the court’s action marks a great step forward for marriage equality on the national scene.

While court decisions may not be likely in many states, Cartwright said, the California decision will “encourage both advocacy groups and legislators to press forward where there’s some prospect of either getting outright marriage equality or advancing relationship recognition through the legislature.”

In New Jersey, where a state investigating commission has found the civil union system doesn’t provide full equality, chances are good the legislature will vote for marriage equality in the coming year, she said. Such possibilities also exist in New York and Connecticut.

Though the decision’s effect on workplace issues will be indirect, Cartwright feels that “every step forward on the marriage front increases the general perception that gay people are more assimilated and accepted in society, and to that extent it may help to some degree in workplace equality.”

Among plaintiffs in the court case were Phyllis Lyon, 83, and Del Martin, 87, a couple for 56 years. “We have waited more than 50 years for the opportunity to marry,” Lyon said in a statement. “We are thrilled that this day has finally come.”

The legal struggle started in 2004, when the California Supreme Court invalidated over 4,000 marriage licenses issued to gay and lesbian couples by the city of San Francisco. Advocacy and civil liberties organizations, the city and private attorneys filed cases which were then consolidated with two lawsuits filed by anti-gay organizations seeking to show the ban was constitutional. During the court process, more than 250 religious and civil rights organizations joined in filing amicus briefs backing marriage equality.

Though marriage ceremonies are expected to begin when the court decision takes effect, the battle isn’t over. A right-wing coalition has collected over 1.1 million signatures for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The secretary of state is to announce by June 18 if there are enough valid signatures for the measure to appear on the November ballot.
Though in 2000 state voters passed, 61-39, an initiative (not a constitutional amendment) to ban same-sex marriage, equality advocates predict this time the outcome will be different.

Ordeñana pointed out that many prominent Californians support marriage equality. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has stated that he opposes the initiative for a constitutional ban.
“I’m confident that Californians will vote for fairness and opportunity come November, if this amendment makes it to the ballot,” Ordeñana said.