Opponents of gay marriage celebrated the decision on the Supreme Court House steps in San Francisco. Supporters of gay marriage also gathered at the building, some crying, when the decision was announced.
The state general attorney and a conservative Christian group had brought a lawsuit against the city that prompted the ruling. The decision, citing legislation and a voter-approved measure that both define marriage as between a man and a woman, said the city illegally issued the licenses.
The court asserted they were not ruling on same-sex marriage, but on the separation of powers in government.
“This conclusion is consistent with the classic understanding of the separation-of-powers doctrine — that the legislative power is the power to enact statues, the executive power is the power to execute or enforce statures, and the judicial power is the power to interpret statutes and to determine their constitutionality,” the court said.
The 5-2 ruling to void the 3,995 marriages conducted between Feb. 12 and March 11 came in a separate decision. The court said they must resolve the constitutionality of same-sex marriage before granting legality to the marriages.
City officials said they think same-sex marriage eventually will be legal.
“Ultimately, we believe when we deal with the issue of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage in California, Mayor Newsom’s position will be vindicated at the end of the day,” said Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s city attorney.
The ruling did not mention a separate lawsuit that addresses the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. The court did say, however, that if the current legislation is found unconstitutional, “same-sex couples then would be free to obtain valid marriage licenses and enter into valid marriages.”
The ruling, although not unexpected, dealt a blow to gay rights groups.
“It is a sad day for all the wonderful couples in San Francisco, but we know this is not the end,” Alice Leeds of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a gay rights group in Washington, said to the New York Times. “The future lies in fairness for gay and lesbian families.
Opponents of same-sex marriage applauded the ruling, saying it was a victory for their efforts to preserve the institution of marriage.
“Instead of helping his cause, Mayor Newsom has set back the same-sex marriage agenda and laid the foundation for the pro-marriage movement to once and for all win this battle to preserve traditional marriage,” said Matthew Staver, who represents Campaign for California Families in a lawsuit challenging the San Francisco marriages.
Newsom sanctioned the licenses in February by citing California’s constitutional ban against discrimination, overlooking the state’s laws against same-sex marriage. He later argued to the court that same-sex couples have a “fundamental right” to marry.
Many other states are dealing with same-sex marriage rights in their courts and among voters. Missouri voters banned same-sex marriage in their state constitution this month, while a Washington judge ruled in favor of gay marriage.
A Massachusetts high court granted gay marriage rights after a constitutional challenge by gays in May.