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A judge ruled Monday that California’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, saying the state could no longer justify limiting marriage to a man and a woman. In the eagerly awaited opinion likely to be appealed to the state’s highest court, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer said that withholding marriage licenses from gays and lesbians is unconstitutional. “It appears that no rational purpose exists for limiting marriage in this state to opposite-sex partners,” Kramer wrote. The judge wrote that the state’s historical definition of marriage, by itself, cannot justify the denial of equal protection for gays and lesbians. “The state’s protracted denial of equal protection cannot be justified simply because such constitutional violation has become traditional,” Kramer wrote. Kramer ruled in lawsuits brought by the city of San Francisco and a dozen same-sex couples last March. The suits were brought after the California Supreme Court halted a four-week marriage spree that Mayor Gavin Newsom had initiated in February 2004 when he directed city officials to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians in defiance of state law. The plaintiffs said withholding marriage licenses from gays and lesbians trespasses on the civil rights all citizens are guaranteed under the California Constitution. Robert Tyler, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, said the group would appeal Kramer’s ruling. Attorney General Bill Lockyer has said in the past that he expected the matter eventually would have to be settled by the California Supreme Court. A pair of bills pending before the California Legislature would put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the November ballot. If California voters approve such an amendment, as those in 13 other states did last year, that would put the issue out of the control of lawmakers and the courts. In a hearing in December, Senior Assistant Attorney General Louis Mauro acknowledged that California is “a leader in affording rights” to same-sex couples. But he maintained that the state has a defensible reason for upholding the existing definition of marriage as part of an important tradition. “State law says there is a fundamental right to marry,” he told Kramer. “We concede that. State law also says marriage is a contract between a man and a woman.” But a deputy city attorney, Therese Stewart, criticized “the so-called tradition argument,” saying the meaning of marriage has evolved over time. As examples, she cited now-overturned bans on marriage by interracial couples, or laws that treated wives as a husband’s property. Kramer is the fourth trial court judge in recent months to decide that the right to marry and its attendant benefits must be extended to same-sex couples. Two Washington state judges, ruling last summer in separate cases, held that prohibiting same-sex marriage violates that state’s constitution, and on Feb. 4, a judge in Manhattan ruled in favor of five gay couples who had been denied marriage licenses by New York City. That ruling applies only in the city but could extend statewide if upheld on appeal. Similar cases are pending in trial courts in Connecticut and Maryland. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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