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Gay couples are celebrating after California's Supreme Court yesterday declared that gays have a constitutional right to marry.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Sarah Varney reports.

SARAH VARNEY: On the steps of the courthouse in San Francisco, gay rights supporters huddled around attorney Kate Kendell as she read the California Supreme Court's decision for the first time.

Ms. KATE KENDELL (Attorney): Every piece of statutory language is stricken from our statutes and the right to marry is now equally extended to anyone, including lesbian and gay couples.

(Soundbite of cheering)

VARNEY: Gay couples, many with their children, gasped as the ramifications of the ruling sunk in. Couples hugged and kissed and cheered and cried. And all wanted to know when they could get married. That's not likely to happen for at least a month.

But the delay in wedding plans didn't squelch the enthusiasm of hundreds of supporters who later gathered in San Francisco's city hall. Mayor Gavin Newsom addressed a jubilant crowd.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (San Francisco): What a day in San Francisco! What a day in California! What a day for America! What a day for equality.

VARNEY: Newsome stood on the same steps where thousands of couples married more than four years ago after he ordered city officials to issue licenses to gay couples. The state's highest court later invalidated those marriage licenses, but many who gathered yesterday said they were ready to tie the knot again.

Brad Aiken said this time around he and his partner have a whole month to plan their wedding.

Mr. BRAD AIKEN: We're feeling great. The first thing we did was go online and register to get our license at 8:15 on June 16th, and we're scheduled to get married in the very first ceremony here at 10:00 o'clock.

VARNEY: In its 4-3 decision, the court said marriage was a basic civil right and that the state constitution guarantees that right to heterosexual and gay Californians. The court said having separate institutions - domestic partnerships for gay couples and marriage for heterosexuals - was akin to racial segregation. And even though gay couples have nearly all the same rights and benefits as married people in California, the court found that domestic partnerships deny same-sex couples the dignity and respect that's afforded to married couples.

The ruling has no affect on federal marriage benefits, like receiving a deceased spouse's Social Security. But legal experts predict California could still see a rush of gay couples coming from other states to get married. Unlike Massachusetts, which only allows same-sex residents to marry, California's doors are open to anyone.

Santa Clara University law professor Margaret Russell says the patchwork of marriage laws across the nation could lead to difficulties for same sex couples.

Professor MARGARET RUSSELL (Santa Clara University): It may lead to litigation if there are couples from California who want to move to other states or be legally recognized as couples in other states and those states refuse.

VARNEY: More than two dozen states already have constitutional amendments that limit marriage to heterosexual unions. Legal scholars say those states will likely not recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere.

In California, opponents of gay marriage said the Supreme Court ignored the will of the people by overturning an initiative approved by voters in 2000 that limited marriage to heterosexual couples.

Glen Lavey, an attorney with the conservative Christian group Alliance Defense Fund, said when California granted gay couples various civil rights, it was the slippery slope that led to yesterday's court decision.

Mr. GLEN LAVEY (Attorney, Alliance Defense Fund): The argument of the opposition is always this is just health insurance. This is just adoption. Then all of a sudden you have a court like California, like Vermont and Massachusetts saying you allowed these things, now you must give marriage.

VARNEY: The court's ruling may not be the last word. Religious conservatives have gathered signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would ban gay marriage and undo the court's decision.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney in San Francisco.

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