A federal judge today ordered the state of California to temporarily keep same-sex marriages on hold as supporters of a voter-approved ban on the unions seek to have it reinstated by an appeals court.
Walker's ruling made clear that "none of the factors the court weighs in considering a motion to stay favors granting a stay."
But he ultimately decided that same-sex marriages should not resume until Aug. 18 at 5 p.m., likely out of deference to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear the case next. It could choose to extend the stay further.
The news disappointed gay couples across the state, some of whom had lined up outside city halls from San Francisco to Los Angeles, eagerly anticipating the chance to get married this afternoon.
"To a certain extent you just get a little numb to it," said Jordan Krueger, a 29-year-old gay man in Los Angeles who's engaged to his partner, Hank. "We were ecstatic that the verdict came down a week ago, but it's trying that we still have to wait."
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker last week struck down the state's gay marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, saying it amounts to unconstitutional discrimination. He later issued a temporary stay on his order to allow supporters to explain why it should be suspended during the appeal.
"California is able to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as it has already issued 18,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples and has not suffered any demonstrated harm as a result," Walker wrote in his original ruling. Gay couples began marrying in the state in June 2008 but were blocked five months later by Prop 8.
Walker's ruling today would allow those marriages to resume next Wednesday.
"Lifting the stay will put into action Judge Walker's basic premise that the state can't discriminate against same-sex couples," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian rights group. "Californians deserve equality and they deserve it now."
But opponents of same-sex unions responded harshly to Walker's decision to lift the stay next week, saying it reflects his judicial activism.
"When a lower judge makes an unprecedented ruling that totally overturns existing Supreme Court precedent, the normal thing for that judge to do is to stay his decision, and let the higher courts decide, in an orderly fashion that respects the rule of law, if he's right or if he's way off-base," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
Proposition 8 Headed Towards High Court
The effort to ban gay marriage in California was first launched in response to a state Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex couples to wed. Voters approved Proposition 8 in a November 2008 ballot with a 52 percent vote.
Despite the popular support, Judge Walker found that the measure was rooted in "unfounded stereotypes and prejudices" and that the plaintiffs in the case -- one lesbian and one gay couple -- demonstrated by "overwhelming evidence" that it violates rights to due process and equal protection under the Constitution.
"Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license," Walker wrote in his 136-page opinion. "Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.
"Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians," he wrote. "The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples."
The case now heads to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and could ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where experts say a decision could transform social and legal precedent. They compare the potential impact to the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which ended laws banning interracial marriage.
"This case reflects a classic tension between democratic values," said Ben Bishin, a political science professor at University of California-Riverside. "People often think that democracy means the will of a majority should be law, but its also about equality and liberty. Questions of minority rights speak to values of equality and liberty, and courts are reluctant to tread on those rights when there's no harm done to society."
A California Field poll of registered voters last month found that 51 percent support legalizing gay marriage with 42 percent opposed.
Nationwide, public views are more narrowly divided, according to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. Forty-seven percent of Americans polled favor gay marriage while 50 percent are opposed.
Five states -- Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire -- and the District of Columbia perform same-sex marriages. Four states recognize marriages performed elsewhere and nine states grant civil unions or partnerships.