In a landmark ruling, the California Supreme Court has cleared the way for gay marriages by striking down as unconstitutional a state law banning same-sex unions.
"... Limiting the designation of marriage to a union 'between a man and a woman' is unconstitutional and must be stricken from the statute," California Chief Justice Ron George said in the written opinion yesterday.
The ruling, which takes effect after 30 days unless the court grants a stay, would make the most populous State second in the US after Massachusetts to sanction gay marriages. New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont permit same-sex unions and grant almost same rights as the heterosexual couples but do not recognise them as marriage.
The seven-member panel voted 4-3 in favour of plaintiffs who argued that restricting marriage to men and women was discriminatory.
California already has a strong domestic partner law that gives same-sex couples many of the rights of married couples, but the court ruled that it was not enough, and that sexual orientation should not be a bar to marriage.
Celebrating the decision, Trikone, a South Asian gay and lesbian resource group, said:"we are grateful to our court for recognizing that separate arrangements are not equal."
Same-sex ban was approved by California voters in 2000, but San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome challenged it in 2004 by issuing marriage licenses to thousands of same-sex couples.
While civil right activists have welcomed the court's decision, religious groups have denounced it and are circulating petitions to put a gay marriage ban measure on the November ballot.