As they did in 1948 when they struck down the state ban on interracial marriage twenty years ahead of the rest of the nation, the California Supreme Court today declared that it was a violation of basic civil rights to deny gay Californians the right to marry members of the same sex.
Formal arguments in the case were set aside and the court went directly to questioning witnesses and attorneys for several days, as justices attempted to weigh the validity of the gay marriage ban in California's Proposition 22 against the rights protections in the California state constitution. Arguments against gay marriage included appeals to tradition and that civil unions were sufficient as a separate but equal alternative and that heterosexual marriage was somehow diminished by the existence of gay marriage. The court seemed more persuaded by the argument that if marriage was a right it should be a right applied exactly equally to all, regardless of gender or sexual preference.
In their decision, the court made specific comparisons to their prior ruling on interracial marriage in Perez vs. Sharp, which rejected tradition and established the "fundamental constitutional right to marry". On this basis they ruled that a separate status for gay unions could never be truly equal to marriage, concluding:
retaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise — now emphatically rejected by this state — that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects “second-class citizens” who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples.
The California decision is far more meaningful than just an instance of a group of justices legislating morality from the bench. Governor Schwarzenegger had vetoed state legislation to legalize gay marriage, leaving the decision up to the court, but agreeing to sign such legislation if the court approved it. Now that they have acted, the road is clear for the passage of a statewide law supporting gay marriage which would make California the first and only state to authorize gay marriage legislatively.