U.S. Judge Overturns Prop. 8 In Gay Rights Victory : The Two-Way A federal judge in California has ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights for all Americans.
NPR logo U.S. Judge Overturns Prop. 8 In Gay Rights Victory

U.S. Judge Overturns Prop. 8 In Gay Rights Victory

Proponents and opponents of Proposition 8 outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010.  Jeff Chiu/AP hide caption

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Jeff Chiu/AP

A federal judge in California has ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights for all Americans.

The opinion, issued Wednesday afternoon by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker, scuttles the state’s “Proposition 8,” a state Constitutional amendment barring such unions. The so-called “Prop 8” was approved by California voters in 2008, just months after state legislators legalized same-sex marriage – prompting more than 18,000 couples to converge on city halls across the state to marry.

In his ruling, Vaughn wrote that the Proposition 8 “unconstitutionally burdens the exercise of the fundamental right to marry and creates and irrational classification on the basis of sexual orientation.

He said the amendment, approved by 52 percent of Californians who voted in November 2008, “fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license.

“Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples,” he wrote.

And Vaughn, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush, drew on history in defending the right of same-sex couples to legalize their committed relationships: Such relationships, he said, “are consistent with the core of the history, tradition and practice of marriage in the United States.”

The ban was upheld last year by California’s Supreme Court, whose decision was subsequently appealed by gay marriage advocates. The trial was held earlier this year, and featured high-powered lawyers Theodore Olson, a conservative and former U.S. solicitor general, and David Boies, who represented then-presidential candidate Al Gore during the high court dispute over the 2000 presidential election results, joining forces to argue in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Walker’s decision marks the beginning of yet another chapter in the ongoing war over whether the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights and protections for Americans extends to same-sex couples seeking to legalize their unions.

His opinion is expected be appealed — and even before it was issued, those supporting the marriage ban asked that his decision be stayed if he found the unconstitutional. It appears inevitable that the issue will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There, justices would be asked to decide a civil rights question that states have been struggling with mightily -– and with increasing vigor — since Vermont broke new ground in 2000, by approving same-sex civil unions.

Since then, the District of Columbia and five states, including Vermont, have approved measures giving same-sex couples the right to receive marriage licenses. The other states are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and New Hampshire.

Walker's decision comes in the wake of another dramatic opinion out of federal court in Boston. There, Judge Joseph Tauro found unconstitutional a 1996 federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The act bars the federal government from recognizing gay marriages.

Tauro ruled that the DOMA improperly meddles with states' traditionally exclusive right to regulate marriage. Activists are watching to see if — or when — the Department of Justice, tasked with defending federal law, will appeal.

Americans have shown consistent and growing support for the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 42 percent of those surveyed said they support the right of same-sex couples to marry, with 25 percent supporting their right to civil unions.

That poll, and others like it, found that opposition to same-sex marriage is strongest among older Americans who identify themselves as

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There are numerous reports that a U.S. judge in San Francisco has overturned as unconstitutional Proposition 8, the California law that bans gay marriage in the state.

We'll post more information and the ruling as soon as we get access to it. It's a significant victory for gay rights but the question can still be considered unsettled until the case is ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court.