A federal appeals court ruled today that California's ban on gay marriage will remain in place indefinitely as judges consider whether it is constitutional.
The decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns the order of a federal judge last week that would have permitted same-sex couples to marry as soon as this week.
The three-judge panel that issued the decision said the 9th Circuit will expedite the challenge to California's voter-aproved ban on gay marriage, though the case will not be heard in court until December.
Earlier in the month, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that the ban, known as Proposition 8, amounts to unconstitutional discrimination. Just last week, Walker ordered it to be lifted on Wednesday, Aug. 18.
Opponents of same-sex unions responded harshly to Walker's decision, saying it reflected 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.
Weddings Planned for Wednesday Now Put on Hold
The appeals court decision is a further setback for gay rights advocates, many of whom were planning wedding ceremonies for 5 o'clock on Wednesday, when same-sex marriages would have resumed for the first time since November 2008, when voters approved Proposition 8.
Same-sex weddings were first allowed in California in June 2008, only to be blocked five months later by voters.
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 with a 52 percent vote.
Despite the popular support, 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 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will now take up the case, which could ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Experts say a decision there could transform social and legal precedent, comparing 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 now 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.