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San Francisco lawyer Nanci Clarence was in her car Thursday when she heard that the California Supreme Court had invalidated the thousands of same-sex marriages performed in San Francisco a few months back. Tears streamed down her cheeks, she said, because she and filmmaker Lidia Szajko were among those couples, having taken their vows as “spouses for life” on Feb. 20, eight days after the city began issuing licenses. “All my life I’ve fought for acceptance in my family and my community,” the Clarence & Dyer partner said, “and for a fleeting moment that acceptance felt pretty replete and it was a great feeling. And to have it suddenly taken away feels like a body blow.” Clarence’s reaction was typical on a day when the court did what many expected. But so was her belief that the court had left telltale signs that state laws prohibiting gays and lesbians from marrying will someday soon be declared unconstitutional. She and several others took hope from the majority’s narrow ruling on the city’s lack of authority to issue licenses to same-sex couples, and from separate opinions by Justices Joyce Kennard and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar that could be read in support of gays on the yet-to-be-decided constitutional issue. “I am pleased that the court reiterated several times that it was not addressing the ultimate constitutional question,” said Kathryn Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “This court is more than ready to give an objective, rational and fair hearing to an affirmative marriage challenge.” Jennifer Pizer, senior staff attorney in the Los Angeles office of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, agreed, saying that the justices went to great lengths to separate out the constitutional issues. “The court recognizes that several thousand couples are deeply saddened [by the ruling],” she said, “and the court was about as explicit as it could be that [the] opinion shouldn’t be taken for more than it is.” But Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University School of Law who describes himself as a defender of traditional marriage, said gay advocates are reading too much into the opinion. “What can’t be overlooked,” he said, “are the statements by the court that the Family Code, including its affirmation of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, is unambiguous and clear, and that no public official could have misunderstood it in a credible fashion.” Kmiec agreed that the justices appear eager to have the constitutional issue come before them eventually, and he thought the court was arming itself with information on both sides of the coin. “They point out not only the developments in Massachusetts, but the fact that there is a significant body of case law to the contrary,” he said. “And the court indicates it is not just aware of those judicial developments, but is also monitoring those states that are already involved in affirming traditional marriage. “What the opinion does illustrate is that the court has been doing its homework,” he added, “and has obviously done some fairly wide reading on the constitutional question.” Even Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, the national group promoting marriage rights for gays, cautioned about divining the tea leaves on the court’s thoughts on the constitutional issues. The ruling, he said, was “simply about timing and process.” However, Wolfson said, the ruling “does raise the question of who benefited today. How is anyone better off because these families are temporarily deprived of their marriages? Were we in danger of running out of marriage licenses?” After the ruling was released shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday, several disappointed couples gathered on the courthouse steps. Coincidentally, they stood next to a heart sculpture bearing the words, “Broken heart, but not heartbroken” — which could have summed up the mood. “This is just a temporary setback, and we will prevail,” said Deborah Sica, who married her partner of five years on Valentine’s Day. Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, who married on Feb. 12, the first day licenses were issued, said the decision, though expected, reinforces their desire to fight harder for equality. “We know in our hearts we are married,” said Gaffney, project director for the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at UCSF. “And we’re determined to do everything we need to do to get our marriage certificate validated by the state.” Lewis, a lawyer who is on leave from his solo practice, said he believes courts around the country are getting behind gays on civil rights issues and that the California Supreme Court will be no different. “What I read between the lines of the opinion,” he said, “is that the court sees lesbian and gay people as real human beings entitled to full dignity, and I am hopeful that with that understanding, when they have a case that actually presents the constitutionality of a law that bans same-sex marriage, they will hold it violates equal protection.” C. Martin Meekins, an associate in the Los Angeles office of White & Case who specializes in pro bono constitutional work on gay and lesbian issues, feels the same way. But, nonetheless, he said the court ruled correctly Thursday. “It would be a very chaotic state if mayors and other city or county officials could decide whether or not they wanted to enforce the rule of law in California,” said Meekins, a director of the gay political group, Log Cabin Republicans. He said the state should never have passed a law banning marriage by gays and lesbians but felt San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom acted inappropriately. “Logically,” he added, “it follows if an official acts inappropriately you cannot enforce their actions.” While the ruling caused a stir outside the Supreme Court building, the halls inside — where many gays and lesbians work for the court, the 1st District Court of Appeal and the Administrative Office of the Courts — remained rather calm. “Truthfully, I think everyone was expecting [the outcome],” said one employee. “People were eager to read [the ruling] and see what it said,” but felt there was “really nothing shocking about it.” Staff writer Pam Smith contributed to this report.

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