Gay couples in California may soon be headed to the altar after that state's Supreme Court knocked down a state law banning same-sex marriage Thursday.
The same-sex weddings could begin within a month, although 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.
In its 4-3 ruling, the Republican-dominated California 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.
Both the LDS Church and the Catholic Archdiocese in San Francisco released statements about the California decision, reiterating their views of marriage and commenting on the court's action. Both churches worked to help outlaw gay marriage in California several years ago.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes that same-sex marriage can be an emotional and divisive issue. However, the church teaches that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is the basic unit of society. Today's California Supreme Court decision is unfortunate," the statement from the LDS Church read.
The church declined comment on what future action it may take to help challenge the court's decision, but it was active in urging California residents to ban gay marriage through a public referendum in March 2000.
While California is often a bellwether state on national debates they were the first state to strike down bans on interracial marriage, in 1948, a precedent the justices cited in their ruling those who follow the national gay marriage debate say the ruling in the nation's largest state probably won't impact Utah, at least not immediately.
"The short answer is those marriages would not be recognized in Utah," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Utah voters, in 2004, approved a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage and other domestic unions.
It was the possibility of a legal challenge in state court that made traditional marriage advocates cite a need for a state constitutional amendment. That amendment was in addition to state law that also bans same-sex unions.
The Utah law may not even be tested, since opponents are working to get an amendment to California's constitution on the November ballot. Also, the Alliance Defense Fund, which opposes legalized gay marriage, said that it would ask the court for a stay on their ruling until after a statewide vote on the amendment.
While Massachusetts was actually the first state to have a gay marriage ban overturned, the California ruling is likely to have a greater national impact. Unlike Massachusetts, there is no residency requirement for marriage, so it will be up to individual states to determine whether they will recognize the marriages.
If the state does start performing gay marriages, Monte Stewart, president of the Orem-based Marriage Law Foundation, said a legal challenge in Utah may not be far behind.
"There will now be a flood of recognition cases all across the country," he said. "We would not be surprised to see Utah getting a recognition case or two."
But Stewart isn't worried, because he says the law is clear: "A state does not need to recognize a marriage by a same-sex couple in another state."
Shurtleff says any challenge to Utah's marriage policy will have to come in federal court, and those challenges have already been brought up in other states, as couples wed in Massachusetts have sought recognition of their relationships elsewhere.
"It's well on its way in other jurisdictions," Shurtleff said. "You're now getting these different decisions in different states. That's when the (U.S.) Supreme Court needs to step up and say, 'we've got to decide this.'"
The cases are based on the same constitutional "full faith and credit" provision that requires states to recognize each other's driver licenses.
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, says he'd like to see marriage equality but doesn't see it coming through a court challenge. McCoy directed the campaign against Amendment 3, the gay marriage ban, in 2004.
"That has never been used in the 200 years-plus that we've had our Constitution to force one state to recognize a marriage from another state," he said. "Utah has clearly stated, and I think wrongly stated, that marriage is between a man and woman and won't recognize a marriage from another state."
McCoy does, however, see a bright side for the nation as a whole. California, the nation's largest state, has influential clout on other states.
"If anything this decision in California will help to establish both in theory and fact that marriage equality is a good thing and not a bad thing," McCoy said. "As that notion plays out in California as it has in Massachusetts, for the last four years, that notion could catch on in other parts of the country."
The case was set in motion in 2004 when Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, threw City Hall open to gay couples to get married in a calculated challenge to California law. Four-thousand gay couples wed before the Supreme Court put a halt to the practice after a month.
Two dozen gay couples then sued, along with the city and gay rights organizations.
After the ruling was announced, a crowd of people raised their fists in triumph inside 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 to make appointments to get marriage licenses, while in West Hollywood, supporters were planning to serve "wedding cake" at an evening celebration.
"It's about human dignity. It's about human rights. It's about time in California," Newsom, pumping his fist in the air, told a roaring crowd at City Hall. "As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. It's inevitable. This door's wide open now. It's going to happen, whether you like it or not."
California has an estimated 92,000 same-sex couples, and more than 10 percent of the nation's overall population, which gives the ruling significant heft. The state already offers same-sex couples who register as domestic partners many of the legal rights and responsibilities afforded to married couples, including the right to divorce and to sue for child support.
Contributing: Associated Press