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Calif. high court won't halt same-sex marriages
Updated: 2004-02-29 10:59

In yet another setback to conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage, the California Supreme Court declined a request to immediately stop San Francisco from marrying gay couples and to nullify the weddings already performed.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer asked the justices Friday to intervene in the debate while they consider the legality of the marriages. More than 3,400 couples have tied the knot since San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses two weeks ago under the directive of Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Lockyer told the justices it was a matter for the courts, not the mayor, to decide. He did not take a position on whether same-sex marriages should be deemed constitutional.

"The genius of our legal system is in the orderly way our laws can be changed, by the Legislature or by a vote of the people through the initiative process, to reflect current wisdom or societal values," he wrote.

The justices told the city and a conservative group that also asked the court to block gay marriages to file new legal briefs by March 5.

Regardless of the order, the San Francisco-based court did not indicate whether it would decide the issue. The seven justices usually are reluctant to decide cases until they work their way up through the lower courts, which this case has not.

Also Friday, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer refused a request for an injunction against gay weddings performed in the village of New Paltz, N.Y., noting that such a measure should be a last resort. He did not issue an opinion on whether the marriages were legal.

Twenty-five gay couples exchanged wedding vows Friday on the steps of the New Paltz village hall.

"What we're witnessing in America today is the flowering of the largest civil rights movement the country's had in a generation," said New Paltz' Green Party mayor, Jason West.

More than 30 gay couples in Iowa City, Iowa, were denied marriage licenses Friday by an openly lesbian county official who said she must uphold the law.

Earlier this month, a county clerk in New Mexico issued 26 licenses before the state attorney general declared them invalid.

This month's gay marriage push is rooted in a November decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriages violated that state's constitution. The court reaffirmed the decision this month, clearing the way for full-fledged gay marriages by mid-May.

The issue has sparked intense debate nationwide and spilled into the presidential race. President Bush, citing the Massachusetts decision and the parade of weddings in San Francisco, backed a federal constitutional amendment Tuesday to bar such marriages.

In statehouses nationwide, lawmakers are taking a closer look at their constitutions to see if they could be construed to permit same-sex marriages, even in states where laws now bar them. Massachusetts is one of many states where lawmakers are considering a constitutional amendment to bar the marriages.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the state last week on grounds that California's marriage laws violate the state constitution's equal-protection clause. Pressure on Lockyer to act intensified when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed him to "take immediate steps" to halt San Francisco's marriage march.

Supporters of the marriages have criticized Lockyer for rushing the issue to the state's highest court, while gay marriage opponents have criticized Lockyer for not acting sooner.

The California Supreme Court has a history of addressing marriage and gay rights cases. It was the first state high court in the nation to legalize interracial marriage 56 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, the court upheld gay rights by saying businesses could not arbitrarily discriminate against homosexuals.

Meanwhile, Republican activists who helped mount the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis last year have announced plans to seek the removal of Lockyer, who they say has "neglected his duty" to enforce state marriage laws.

In another development related to the weddings, the Social Security Administration has told its offices nationwide not to accept marriage certificates from San Francisco as proof of identification for newlyweds looking to make name changes on Social Security cards

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