SAN FRANCISCO - The California Supreme Court on Thursday voided the nearly 4,000 same-sex marriages sanctioned in San Francisco this year and ruled unanimously that the mayor overstepped his authority by issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
The court said the city illegally issued the certificates and performed the ceremonies, since state law defines marriage as a union between a man and woman.
The justices separately decided with a 5-2 vote to nullify the 3,995 marriages peformed between Feb. 12 and March 11, when the court halted the weddings. Their legality, Justice Joyce Kennard wrote, must wait until courts resolve the constitutionality of state laws that restrict marriages to opposite-sex couples.
The same-sex marriages had virtually no legal value, but powerful symbolic value. Their nullification by the high court dismayed Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in San Francisco.
Laws of the Land: Making Sense of Marriage vs. Civil Unions
"Del is 83 years old and I am 79," Lyon said. "After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time."
About a dozen gay and lesbian couples, some wearing wedding dresses and tuxedos, waited on the steps of the Supreme Court building, and some cried when the decision was read.
The court did not resolve whether the California Constitution would permit a same-sex marriage, ruling instead on the limits of authority regarding local government officials.
Anti-gay-marriage groups hailed the ruling, saying Mayor Gavin Newsom acted prematurely.
"Instead of helping his cause, Mayor Newsom has set back the same-sex marriage agenda and laid the foundation for the pro-marriage movement to once and for all win this battle to preserve traditional marriage," said Mathew Staver, who represents Campaign for California Families in a lawsuit challenging the San Francisco marriages.
The justices agreed to resolve the legality of the San Francisco weddings after emergency petitions were filed by conservative interest groups and Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Lockyer said Thursday's ruling "simply says rule of law, rule of law, rule of law. That's how we govern our society."
But Newsom was defiant at a news conference, where he appeared with city officials, many of them gay and lesbian. Newsom said his "heart was heavy" over the voided marriages but vowed to carry on the city's constitutional challenge.
"There is nothing that any court decision or politician can do that will take that (wedding) moment away," he said. "I'm proud of those 4,000 couples."
San Francisco's gay weddings, which followed a landmark ruling by Massachusetts' top court allowing gay marriage, prompted President Bush to push for changing the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, an effort that has become campaign fodder this election year.
The California court sided with Lockyer's arguments, ruling that Newsom's actions would sanction local officials to legislate state law from city halls or county government centers.
When the justices agreed to hear the case, they said they would decide for now only whether Newsom overstepped his mayoral powers. But they also said they would entertain a constitutional challenge - that gays should be treated the same as heterosexual couples under the California Constitution - if such a lawsuit reached the court.
Gay and lesbian couples immediately filed lawsuits making that argument, as did Newsom. The now-consolidated cases are unlikely to reach the California Supreme Court for at least a year.
Newsom argued to the justices in May that the ability of same-sex couples to marry was a "fundamental right" that compelled him to act. He authorized the marriages by citing the California Constitution's ban against discrimination, and claimed he was duty-bound to follow this higher authority rather than state laws banning gay marriage.
The Arizona-based Christian law firm Alliance Defense Fund, a plaintiff in one of two cases the justices decided Thursday, had told the justices that Newsom's "act of disobedience" could lead other local officials to sanction "polygamists."
Newsom's defiance of state law created huge lines at City Hall of gays and lesbians waiting to be married, and ignited a firestorm engulfing statehouses and ballot boxes nationwide.
Missouri voters this month endorsed a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage - a move designed to prevent that state's judiciary from agreeing with the arguments Newsom is making in California.
A state constitutional challenge by gays in Massachusetts prompted that state's highest court to endorse the gay marriages that began there in May. A judge in Washington state this month also ruled in favor of gay marriage, pending a resolution from that state's top court.
Louisiana residents are to vote Sept. 18 on constitutionally banning same-sex marriage. Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah are to vote Nov. 2. Initiatives are pending in Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio.
Four states - Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska and Nevada - already have similar amendments in their constitutions.