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Almost one month after San Francisco began marrying same-sex couples, the California Supreme Court handed opponents of those marriages a victory by ordering the city to immediately stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses. With two orders Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously stayed the marriages until it can hold a show-cause hearing in late May or June. Until then, the city was ordered “to enforce and apply [state law] without regard to respondents’ personal view of the constitutionality of such provisions, and to refrain from issuing marriage licenses or certificates not authorized by” state law. In a news release accompanying its order, the court said the hearing would be limited to whether city officials had exceeded their authority, and that this “does not include the substantive constitutional challenge to the California marriage statutes themselves.” But the court noted in its order that parties were not precluded from filing a separate action in superior court to challenge the constitutionality of state family laws that say a marriage is between a man and a woman. Although the court hasn’t necessarily stopped the marriages for good, Thursday’s order pleased opponents of the same-sex marriages, like Benjamin Bull of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund. “I’m looking at a glass that is three-quarters’ full, and you’re asking if I’m upset the last quarter isn’t full,” Bull said. “We’re ecstatic.” “The disappointing part is the stay,” said Shannon Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is representing five same-sex couples intervening in the superior court cases. “But we believe this is a temporary pause while the court engages the key issue, which is whether the marriage statutes unconstitutionally discriminate against same-sex couples.” The effect of the orders was immediate. Couples just minutes away from wedlock at City Hall were informed that there would be no more marriages. “We knew there were court proceedings going on, but had no idea there would be a decision today,” said Meghan Wharton, who had flown in from Phoenix and was informed of the decision just before her 2:30 p.m. nuptial. “We can’t believe this happened.” The Supreme Court’s directions came in response to two petitions filed about two weeks ago by Attorney General Bill Lockyer and three San Francisco residents represented by the Alliance Defense Fund. Lawyers on both sides agreed that the court’s interim stay dealt a blow to gay marriage proponents, who had previously fought off attempts to persuade lower courts to immediately halt the weddings. But the lawyers disagreed as to how broad an argument the court would entertain at the show-cause hearing. Opponents of the marriages have tried to keep the focus off the constitutionality of the state laws, instead arguing that Article III, Section 3.5 of the state constitution requires local administrative agencies to enforce state laws unless an appellate court first declares them unconstitutional. The city has countered by saying that Section 3.5 doesn’t apply to city officials, and that in any case the family laws violate equal protection provisions of the state and federal constitutions. “It seems that the Supreme Court wants to address [the constitutional challenge] separately,” acknowledged Bobbie Wilson, a partner at Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin who is helping represent the city. But the city’s position is that the court can’t make a decision on whether city officials violated Section 3.5 without addressing the city’s constitutional challenge, she said. The court clearly opened the door for San Francisco to raise its constitutional defense, Minter said, citing part of the order that directs the city to discuss not only Section 3.5, but also “any other constitutional or statutory provision or doctrine that may be relevant to the resolution of the foregoing issue.” “They have to address the constitutional question, because that is the mayor’s defense,” Minter said. But he’s not sure the court would make a final determination on that issue as soon as June, he added. “Depending on their analysis, they may send it back to the trial court for some kind of factual hearing.” “We believe that at some point, our state courts will recognize that denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry is discrimination that violates our constitution,” the ACLU said in a statement. “It does not appear that the Supreme Court will address this — the ultimate question — when it considers this case. It may well leave that issue to the lower courts.” Mathew Staver of Florida-based Liberty Counsel, another group opposing the marriages that has tried to intervene in Lockyer’s Supreme Court action, contends the court’s orders indicate constitutional challenges should be filed by same-sex couples who have been denied marriage licenses — not by the city. Last month two same-sex couples filed such a suit in state court in Los Angeles. Minter said he’s not sure if his organization or another group supporting gay and lesbian marriages will file another suit in superior court. Following the Supreme Court’s order, City Attorney Dennis Herrera immediately filed a fresh lawsuit in Superior Court arguing that the family laws violate the state constitution, San Francisco v. State of California, 429539. “We are trying to respond to the court’s order in a way that we are protecting our position on all available fronts,” Herrera said at a hastily called press conference Thursday. At a City Hall press conference, Mayor Gavin Newsom did not characterize the orders as a blow. “We’ve been given now our day in court,” he said. “That’s what we wanted from the very beginning.” The Supreme Court’s action may take some of the immediate pressure off of Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay, who was to hold a show-cause hearing for the original superior court case March 29. At a status conference Wednesday, Quidachay seemed hopeful when he asked lawyers arguing over how hearings should proceed before him, “Do you have any idea when the Supreme Court may come up with a determination that might make all these discussions today moot?” Meanwhile, at City Hall on Thursday, stunned couples, some clad in tuxedos and others carrying bouquets, milled about after being turned away at the clerk’s office. Santa Cruz, Calif., resident Ross Ladouceur, wearing a Hawaiian lei over his tuxedo, bore the lugubrious expression of someone left at the altar. “It just doesn’t make sense. It’s a basic human rights issue,” Ladouceur said. The process of informing couples that their wedding is off will be repeated extensively. The city has 2,688 scheduled appointments for couples, though it is not clear how many are gay. The city has married 4,161 gay couples. Reporter Alexei Oreskovic contributed to this report. For additional coverage of the state Supreme Court ruling and legal observers’ reactions, see Calif. High Court Warily Enters Fray Over Gay Marriages

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