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US court blocks gay marriages
Updated: 2004-03-12 09:12

The California Supreme Court on Thursday ordered an immediate halt to gay marriages in San Francisco, delivering a victory to conservatives who have fought for a month to block the ceremonies.

The court did not rule on the legality of gay marriages, and justices indicated they would decide in the coming months whether San Francisco's mayor had the authority to allow the weddings.

Oppenents of gay marriage protest outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston, March 11, 2004. Inside, the Massachusetts Legislature was debating an ammendment to the state's constitution banning gay marriages. In November 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state must issue marriage licenses to gay couples. [Reuters]
The dispute began February 12, when Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his administration to issue same-sex marriage licenses. A steady stream of gay couples from around the country have traveled to be married at City Hall, just a block from the Supreme Court. More than 3,700 couples having tied the knot in San Francisco so far.

The action by California's highest court came two weeks after state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and a conservative group asked the seven justices to immediately block the gay marriages.

The justices ruled unanimously that Newsom must "refrain from issuing marriage licenses or certificates not authorized" by California marriage laws.

"They restored order to chaos in San Francisco," said Joshua Carden, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund.

Newsom's spokesman, Peter Ragone, said the city would comply with the ruling as soon as officials receive the order.

Jon Davidson, an attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights legal aid group, said the ruling simply puts the issue on hold for now.

"The court has put everything on pause rather than stop," he said. "They are saying that until we hear this, you are on pause."

Had the court declined to intervene, the legal battle over gay marriage in California would have taken years as gay marriage lawsuits traveled through the state's lower courts.

Newsom's defiance of California law prompted several other cities across the country to follow suit, and President George W. Bush last month said he would back a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.

The California court's action came as Massachusetts lawmakers reconvened Thursday to consider a ban on gay marriage. They gave preliminary approval to a proposal that would ban gay marriage but allow civil unions.

Massachusetts' highest court ruled in November that it was unconstitutional to prevent gays from marrying -- a ruling that sparked a legislative scramble to amend the state constitution.

In statehouses nationwide, lawmakers are scrutinizing their constitutions to see if they could be construed to permit same-sex marriages, even in states where laws now bar them.

Lockyer and the Alliance Defense Fund said the court's action was urgently needed because thousands of newly married gays might otherwise think they enjoy the same rights granted other married couples -- such as the right to receive the other spouse's property in the absence of a will.

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