California Supreme Court Invalidates Marriages from San Francisco, Without Resolving Whether Same-Sex Couples Have the Right to Marry

August 12, 2004 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – Today the California Supreme Court ruled that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom did not have the authority to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and declared the licenses issued to thousands of same-sex couples invalid. The ruling does not address whether same-sex couples must be allowed to marry under the California Constitution. That issue is being litigated in a separate lawsuit brought by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal and the ACLU. Legal briefs are being filed in that lawsuit in the next few weeks, and the case is expected to move quickly in state court.

More than 4,000 couples and their families are directly affected by the Court’s decision today, depriving these families of equal dignity as well as of the many legal protections granted to married couples under California law. Among the families are Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in San Francisco on February 12, 2004.

“Del is 83 years old and I am 79,” said Phyllis Lyon. “After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.” One very real consequence of the Court’s action is that if one of the women were to die before the other, the surviving partner would have no right to social security or pension benefits and no protection against losing their family home.

In its decision today, the Court did not rule on the ultimate issue of whether excluding same-sex couples from obtaining government-issued marriage licenses violates the California Constitution’s guarantees of equality, liberty, and privacy. That question is at the center of cases currently pending in San Francisco Superior Court, including Woo v. Lockyer, an action on behalf of several same-sex couples, Equality California, and Our Families Coalition filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the ACLU in March, and a case on behalf of the City and County of San Francisco, brought by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. These cases are similar to a Massachusetts lawsuit that led to a decision last year ordering government officials to issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples statewide. In another similar case, a Washington State trial court judge ruled last week that a state law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying violated the state’s Constitution.

“This is a painful and difficult day for the thousands of couples whose love, commitment and desire to protect their families was placed on hold,” said Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “While their families are not yet treated equally, their courageous public declarations have shown the world the harm caused by marriage discrimination and will result in our ultimately obtaining the freedom to marry.”

“It is important to remember that today’s decision says nothing about whether California can continue to discriminate against our families,” said Jon Davidson of Lambda Legal.

ACLU of Northern California Associate Director Bob Kearney added: “In 1948, the California Supreme Court was the first in the country to end race discrimination in marriage. We are confident that the court will live up to its own history and bring a swift end to marriage discrimination in California.”

While the challenge to the present law governing the issuance of marriage licenses moves forward in the courts, a simultaneous effort to change that law legislatively is also moving forward. The Marriage License Non-Discrimination Act, legislation, which is being carried by San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno and officially sponsored by Equality California, became the first marriage equality bill to pass a legislative body when it was passed by both the Assembly Rules and Judiciary Committees earlier this year.

“Denying one group of people a government issued license for the sole purpose of discriminating against them and their children flies in the face of everything that has made California great,” said Geoffrey Kors, Executive Director of Equality California, sponsor of the legislation and party to the litigation on behalf of its members. “These 4000 families, and hundreds of thousands of other families headed by same-sex couples, deserve nothing less than equality and we are confident that the courts and the legislature will remedy this injustice.””

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