Calif. Ban On Gay Marriage Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal appeals court ruling in California may bring the debate over same-sex marriage closer to the U.S. Supreme Court. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled California's ban on same-sex marriage, also known as Proposition 8, is unconstitutional. Opponents of Proposition 8 called the ruling "historic." Supporters of the voter-approved ban call the decision "misguided."

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A federal appeals court ruling in California may bring the debate over same-sex marriage closer to the Supreme Court. A three judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California's ban on same-sex marriage, also known as Proposition 8, is unconstitutional. Opponents of Prop. 8 call that ruling historic. Supporters of the voter-approved ban on gay marriage say the decision is misguided. And we have more this morning from NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: In a split two-to-one ruling, the panel upheld a lower court decision that found that Proposition 8 denies the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples who wish to wed. A small crowd of opponents of Prop. 8 gathered outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco to read the ruling as it came out. They soon broke out in song.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on justice.

PATRICK MORGAN: The Ninth Circuit did the right thing. There is a sense of justice, a sense of joy.

GONZALES: Patrick Morgan had married his husband during a brief period in 2008 when the California State Supreme Court first authorized such marriages. After all the legal wrangling, Morgan, like most here, said he's happy their cause won this day.

MORGAN: So this is just a small step and there's a long way to go, but today it's very exciting news.

GONZALES: In Los Angeles, Prop. 8 opponents gathered to hear conservative lawyer Theodore Olson, who represents the two same-sex couples who challenged the measure in court, say the question is about fundamental equality.

THEODORE OLSON: This case is about whether we're going to eliminate second class citizenship, whether we're going to treat thousands, millions of our citizens, as less equal. We are bringing a stop to that discrimination.

GONZALES: Olson was echoing the words of the majority opinion written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who said Proposition 8 serves no purpose and has no effect other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California.

Reinhardt said even though gays and lesbians can be accorded the rights of domestic partners, it's not the same as marriage. In a lighter vein, he wrote: Had Marilyn Monroe's film been called "How to Register a Domestic Partnership with a Millionaire," it would not have conveyed the same meaning as did her famous movie.

But the ruling was no laughing matter for Andrew Pugno, general counsel of Protect Marriage, the group that sponsored Prop. 8. He recalled that the measure was approved by voters in November 2008, shortly after the California Supreme Court legalized same sex marriages.

ANDREW PUGNO: Proposition 8 was passed by the people just a couple of months after same-sex marriage had been imposed by the California courts. And it wasn't to harm anybody or to strip rights away from anyone. It was to exercise their right to overrule the court and restore traditional marriage in California.

GONZALES: Pugno says it's too early to say whether his group will seek an en banc hearing - in other words, a review by all the judges on the Ninth Circuit. Or they could appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Pugno said the cost of appeals could be a significant factor in his strategy.

Meanwhile, other supporters of Prop. 8 were busy putting out the word to rally their troops. Alan Sears, president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund, recorded a YouTube video to remind his supporters that their side had only lost one stage of the battle.

ALAN SEARS: It's far from over. And we need your prayers. We need your support, your friendship, as never before. You've carried this battle in state after state where we've won. You've helped us carry this battle in California. We've got a long way to the finish line.

GONZALES: The finish line is some action by the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then, same-sex marriages in California remain on hold.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News. San Francisco.

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