More Than Just a Piece of Paper

For all practical purposes, the only real change that yesterday's court decision means for California's gay couples is an official piece of paper and a legal ceremony.

After all, under the state's domestic partnership laws, same-sex couples already enjoy all the legal rights and protections enjoyed by opposite-sex couples.

But for hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples in the state, today's state Supreme Court decision to strike down the ban on gay marriage was a historic and transformative moment.

"It changes everything," said Rick Jacobs, founder and chairman of the Courage Campaign, a progressive political organization. "What it says is that same-sex couples are first-class citizens like everyone else, that there is no question that everyone has equal rights."

Jacobs has talked to several gay couples who were already planning to get married as soon as possible.

Among those planning on wedding bells are talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and her companions Portia deRossi, of "Ally McBeal" and "Nip/Tuck" fame. DeGeneres announced their plans during the taping of her show Thursday after the court ruling was made public. The show is expected to air today.

When she was visiting the state capital last week, Torrie Osborn had a good feeling about the impending decision after she ran into Chief Justice Ron George.

"He said to me, "Oh, you wrote that beautiful piece in The New York Times," about her marriage to her former partner in San Francisco in 2004. It was compelling and thoughtful,'" said Osborn, the former director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Based on that, I was cautiously optimistic," she said.

"For years, I didn't think it really mattered. But I went from skeptic to supporter -- domestic partnership is separate but equal. And now this decision creates liberty and equality."

But there are important limitations to the new legal status of gay Californians.

The decision does not change the law in other states or federal law.

And under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed in 1996, gay couples will still be denied more than 1,000 federal rights and benefits, including Social Security benefits, the ability to file a joint federal tax return and the right to petition for a spouse to immigrate.

Other federal rights include veteran's benefits, continued water rights, joint filing of bankruptcy, and tax-free transfer of property between spouses.

And the decision is threatened by a ballot initiative in November that would amend the state's constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. In California, ballot initiatives supersede legislation and court decisions.

Since Massachusetts made gay marriage legal in 2003, 28 states have considered measures to ban the practice and 27 of them passed.

But prominent gay activists in California are not worried about the initiative.

"In the next six months, thousands of couples will take advantage of the law of the land and get married," said Osborn. "[Gov.] Schwarzenegger has come out against the initiative, and I really feel that love is a transformative power. There's always a possibility of a backlash anytime people move forward, but I'm optimistic."

Jacobs believes that the decision could help fuel the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act.

"This is the seventh-largest economy in the world, a seventh of the nation's population. This is not Massachusetts," he explained.

"When California takes a stand on fuel standards and the environment, that resonates. Time is on our side. It's the eve of my 50th birthday and my partner and I are going out to celebrate tonight."

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