More than 1,000 supporters filed onto the rotunda steps of San Francisco's City Hall this morning awaiting -- then celebrating -- the California Supreme Court's decision to strike down the ban on gay marriage. The court ruled four to three that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry regardless of sexual orientation.
Yelling over the din of the crowd, Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, blurted, "I'm living history!"
Though only a handful of legal rights and obligations differ from those of a same-sex domestic partnership or heterosexual marriage, the court's decision acknowledged that domestic partnership did not carry the same weight as marriage, said Suzanne Goldberg, a Columbia Law School professor and director of the sexuality and gender law clinic.
"Before, California had a separate but equal relationship recognition rule, where straight couples could marry and gay people had domestic partnerships," Goldberg said. "That separate but equal rule is now gone, and equality has taken its place."
The court's opinion, written by California Chief Justice Ron George, said that "the substantive right of two adults who share a loving relationship to join together to establish an officially recognized family of their own -- and, if the couple chooses, to raise children within that family -- constitutes a vitally important attribute of the fundamental interest in liberty and personal autonomy."
Social and religious conservatives derided the decision, and pressed an effort to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that could allow California voters to override the court's decision and again ban gay marriage.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council in Washington, explained why conservatives are so upset.
"Judicial activism has come back with a roar here," he said, calling the decision "the equivalent of a judicial shotgun wedding."
Particularly "egregious," Perkins said, was the court's opinion that the state had no compelling reasons to preserve the tradition of marriage.
"I take great exception to that," he said. "There are 9.5 million reasons in the state of California to preserve marriage -- it's called children. This shows a total disregard not only for voters but for recorded human history that marriage is between a man and a woman."
Perkins predicted that the California decision would encourage same-sex couples from across the country to get married in California, then return to their home states and challenge those governments to recognize their same-sex marriages.
California's ban on gay marriage, which was based on a law passed in 1977 and a statewide initiative in 2000, had limited a formal marriage to a man and a woman. Today's ruling deemed those laws unconstitutional because they violated the California state constitution protecting equality and fundamental rights.
Under existing California legislation, same-sex couples shared many of the same legal rights and responsibilties as their married heterosexual counterparts, including the right to divorce and receive child support.
But Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said that the court's "strongly worded statement" offered two additional points he described as "extremely important."