Updated: 10:45 a.m. PDT
SAN FRANCISCO — A crowd at San Francisco City Hall applauded the news Wednesday that the U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California, but the reaction was shaded by the knowledge that the high court had sidestepped the larger question of whether banning gay marriage is unconstitutional.
The justices voted 5-4 to let stand a trial court’s August 2010 ruling that overturned the state’s voter-approved gay marriage ban, holding that the coalition of religious conservative groups that qualified Proposition 8 for the ballot did not have authority to defend it after state officials refused to do so.
The practical effect of the Supreme Court ruling, however, is likely to be more legal wrangling before the state can begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time since Proposition 8 passed in November 2008.
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“While it is unfortunate that the court’s ruling does not directly resolve questions about the scope of the trial court’s order against Prop 8, we will continue to defend Prop 8 and seek its enforcement until such time as there is a binding statewide order that renders Prop 8 unenforceable,” said Andy Pugno, a lawyer for the ban’s supporters.
The uncertainty has made it impossible for anyone to say when gay marriage might resume in California, where such unions had been legal for 4 1/2 months and an estimated 18,000 couples tied the knot before passage of Prop 8.
Gay marriage advocates said marriages could resume as soon as the midlevel appeals court that also invalidated Prop 8 lifts a hold it put on the lower court order while the litigation made its way to the Supreme Court. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said his group would be pushing for that to happen within days instead of weeks.
“The headline here is marriage is starting very, very soon in the great state of California, and those couples should be planning t hose weddings tonight,” Griffin said.
Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday he has directed the California Department of Public Health to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as soon as the hold is lifted.
City and state officials said they were assuming that the earliest marriage licenses could be extended to same-sex couples would be the end of July, to give Prop 8 sponsors time to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider. Under Supreme Court rules, a losing side has 25 days to petition for a rehearing, and a decision would not become final until that period elapses.
Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and state public health director Ron Chapman might then need a few more days to notify county clerks that same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses should no longer be turned away. The three officials were named as defendants in the case but refused to defend Prop 8 in court,
Many activists had hoped the court would strike down bans on gay marriage across the nation as unconstitutional.
The battle over same-sex marriage in California started at San Francisco City Hall in 2004, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city clerks to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
On Wednesday, he brought the biggest cheers from the City Hall gathering when he said San Francisco is a city of “doers” that not only tolerates diversity, but celebrates it every day.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera called the ruling a great victory. He said people criticized the city in 2004, saying it was moving too fast in granting marriage licenses. But Herrera said he believes the only way to get things done is to “kick down the door.”
The measured enthusiasm contrasted with the exuberant cheers that greeted word earlier that the Supreme Court had struck down a federal law that prevents the U.S. government from granting marriage benefits to gay couples.
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