SAN FRANCISCO — California's Supreme Court declared Thursday that gay couples in the nation's most populous state can marry, a monumental but perhaps short-lived victory for the gay rights movement.
Same-sex couples could tie the knot in as little as a month but the window could close soon after. Religious and social conservatives are pressing to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would undo the Supreme Court ruling and ban gay marriage.
The long-awaited court decision stemmed from San Francisco's highly publicized same-sex weddings, which in 2004 helped spur a conservative backlash in a presidential election year and a national dialogue over gay rights. A crowd of people raised their fists in triumph Thursday at San Francisco City Hall, and people wrapped themselves in the rainbow-colored gay-pride flag outside the courthouse.
By the afternoon, gay and lesbian couples had already started lining up at San Francisco City Hall to make appointments to get marriage licenses.
In its 4-3 ruling, the Republican-dominated high court struck down state laws against same-sex marriage and said domestic partnerships that provide many of the rights and benefits of matrimony are not enough.
"In contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority in ringing language that delighted gay rights activists.
Massachusetts is the only other state to legalize gay marriage, something it did in 2004. The California ruling is considered monumental by virtue of the state's size — 38-million out of a U.S. population of 302-million — and its historic role in the vanguard of the many social and cultural changes that have swept the country since World War II.
California has an estimated 92,000 same-sex couples.
Unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license, meaning that gays from around the country are likely to flock to the state to be wed, said Jennifer Pizer, a gay rights attorney who worked on the case.
The ultimate reach of the ruling could be limited, however, since most states do not recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Nor does the federal government.
The Alliance Defense Fund said it would ask the justices for a stay of the decision until after the fall election in the hope of adding California to the list of 26 states that have approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
"We're obviously very disappointed in the decision. The remedy is a constitutional amendment," said Glen Lavy, senior counsel for the organization.
Opponents of gay marriage could also ask the high court to reconsider. If the court rejects such a request, same-sex couples could start getting married in 30 days, the time it typically takes for the justices' opinions to become final.
The justices said they would direct state officials "to take all actions necessary to effectuate our ruling." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, , who has vetoed two measures that would have authorized same-sex marriage, said Thursday he would abide by the court's ruling.
Information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.