A federal judge in California rejected the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage Wednesday, cheering gay rights advocates across the country and setting up a hard-fought legal battle that may well reach the Supreme Court.
The opinion, issued by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, overturns the results of a popular referendum in 2008 in which 52 percent of Californians voted to approve a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. That referendum, known as “Proposition 8,” came just months after state lawmakers in California voted to legalize same-sex marriage.
The ruling comes just two months after a similar ruling by a federal circuit court judge in Boston, which found that the federal ban on gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act, violated the Constitution on similar grounds.
Lawyers for the coalition of groups that sponsored Proposition 8 vowed almost immediately to appeal Walker’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. “Its impact could be devastating to marriage and the democratic process,” Brian Raum, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a statement.
After the Ninth Circuit, the case would go to the Supreme Court, which could choose either to hear the appeal or let the Ninth Circuit’s decision stand. But a hearing by the Supreme Court is considered likely by many experts, because the court generally chooses to take cases in which a law has been deemed unconstitutional by a lower court, or in which an issue of national importance has been raised.
In his opinion, Walker wrote that California voters did not have the authority to override constitutional protections of due process and equal protection under the law simply to enshrine their own moral or ethical principles in the state Constitution. As lawyers for both the plaintiffs and the defense have noted, the case rested primarily on whether voters in the Prop 8 initiative had a legitimate public interest in barring same-sex marriages, and whether that interest met basic constitutional standards.
“The question here is whether California voters can enforce those same principles through regulation of marriage licenses. They cannot. California’s obligation is to treat its citizens equally, not to ‘mandate [its] own moral code,’” Walker wrote in the opinion, citing precedent. “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”
Taken with the June ruling that found DOMA unconstitutional, Wednesday’s decision could inject new energy into the nationwide movement to legalize same-sex marriage, which had been reeling from several bruising defeats across the country. Earlier this year, state legislatures in New York and New Jersey, two of the most reliably progressive states in the country, rejected measures that would have legalized same-sex marriage. And in May, the California Supreme Court ruled that the amendment passed by Proposition 8 was valid and enforceable.
Jennifer Pizer, the national marriage project director for Lambda Legal, an LGBT advocacy organization, said in a statement that the Prop 8 ruling reinforced a growing belief among lawmakers and judges across the country that state and federal bans on same-sex marriage are unwise and unconstitutional, and that there is no legitimate public interest in barring same-sex couples from marrying.
“In holding that Prop 8 cannot stand because it violates the equal protection and due process rights of California’s lesbian and gay couples, this decision adds to the growing consensus in courts and legislatures across the country that there are no good reasons for excluding same-sex couples from marriage,” Pizer said. “This thorough review of both sides’ evidence vindicates the rights of LGBT people not only to marry based on love and commitment, as heterosexuals do, but to be treated equally and fairly by their government more generally.”
James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in the case, added a note of caution, saying in a statement that the Prop 8 decision would almost certainly be challenged on appeal, and that the real battle over same-sex marriage would likely be won or lost through the political process.
“We know that this is not the end,” Esseks said. “In order to give this case the best possible chance of success as it moves through the appeals courts, we need to show that America is ready for same-sex couples to marry by continuing to seek marriage and other relationship protections in states across the country. It’s simply not fair, and not legal, to continue to exclude committed same-sex couples from marriage.”
The Mormon Church, which played a sizeable role in funding the ballot initiative and a statewide campaign to secure its passage, warned in a statement that Wednesday’s ruling would be only the beginning of a lengthy appeals process. The church added that the ruling would almost certainly fan the flames of the gay marriage debate, already one of the most divisive social issues in the country.
“California voters have twice been given the opportunity to vote on the definition of marriage in their state and both times have determined that marriage should be recognized as only between a man and a woman. We agree. Marriage between a man and a woman is the bedrock of society,” said the statement. “We recognize that this decision represents only the opening of a vigorous debate in the courts over the rights of the people to define and protect this most fundamental institution — marriage.”