Gay Marriage Ruling Galvanizes Both Sides ; Decision by a California Court Allowing Gay Unions Reflects a Judiciary Moving in One Direction and Legislatures in Another

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A California court's ruling that gay marriage is constitutional in the state has given new fodder to both sides waging one of the nation's most complex and emotional debates.

For supporters of gay marriage, the decision is a boost as they press their cause in other states. Opponents of gay marriage, meanwhile, have vowed to appeal this and other rulings, while also planning to take their case to state legislatures.

Indeed right now, the nation's courts and the legislatures, in general, have been deciding the legitimacy of gay marriage on opposite tracks. The courts have tended to rule in favor of gay couples, finding their rights are violated if they are not granted the same protections and responsibilities as heterosexuals. At the same, and often in response to such rulings, state legislatures, as well as popular referendums, have voted to ban gay unions, contending they are a threat to traditional marriage.

The intensity of the debate, combined with the relatively slow way in which it's being resolved, is reflective of the way the nation has dealt with controversial social issues in the past. For instance, supporters of gay marriage point out that it was two decades after a California court ruled a ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional that the US Supreme Court concurred, in 1967.

For supporters of gay marriage, the parallel with the civil rights movement is heartening. After all, it's been almost 15 years since the Hawaii Supreme Court first ruled in favor of gay marriage. Now lower courts in both New York and California have called on the civil rights battles of the past to justify their rulings in favor of gay marriage.

But opponents say that comparing gay marriage with the civil rights movement is comparing apples and oranges. They believe the rulings that forbade polygamy provide a better parallel.

Yet either way, scholars say past battles over deeply emotional social issues provide a good road map for at least understanding the current debate. "California is a bellwether state - it started the no-fault divorce revolution," says Bill Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation in Provo, Utah, a legal-research nonprofit organization opposed to gay marriage. "We are watching it very carefully."

In Monday's ruling, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the equal-protection clause. …

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