In his decision, Kramer said the state laws violated a person's fundamental right to marry and illegally discriminated on the basis of gender.
He dismissed the state's contention that gays and lesbians can be denied the right to marry on the basis of tradition. Similar arguments had been made in favor of laws banning marriages between people of different races, he noted.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Definition of marriage -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about a San Francisco Superior Court judge's ruling striking down state laws that limit marriage to a man and a woman said that a constitutional amendment on the subject was considered last year in Washington state. It was considered by Congress in Washington, D.C.
He also rejected Lockyer's argument that because California provides domestic partnerships it does not need to allow gays to marry. "The idea that marriage-like rights without marriage is adequate smacks of a concept long rejected by the courts: separate but equal," the judge wrote.
The judge also rejected the argument that matrimony was intended for procreation and therefore naturally limited to opposite-sex couples.
Many opposite-sex couples marry without ever having children -- or even being able to conceive -- and gay couples can have children through adoption and medical technology, he noted.
"One does not have to be married to procreate, nor does one have to procreate in order to be married," Kramer wrote.
Some opponents of gay marriage have argued that allowing same-sex couples to wed would open the way for legalized incest or adults marrying children.
Kramer rejected that argument as well. The state can limit who is permitted to marry if there is a legitimate governmental interest for doing so, Kramer said. But, he said, state officials have provided no such justification for barring same-sex unions.
"The parade of horrible social ills envisioned by the opponents of same-sex marriage is not a necessary result from recognizing that there is a fundamental right to choose who one wants to marry," he wrote.
The decision was more sweeping than advocates of gay marriage had expected, and legal experts said it strengthened their case.
"If I were the plaintiff, I would be dancing in the street," said University of Santa Clara Law Professor Gerald Uelmen. "This puts them in the best possible posture to go up on appeal."
Once Kramer finalizes the wording of his decision later this month, the state and opponents of same-sex marriage could go to the intermediate Court of Appeal in San Francisco or ask the California Supreme Court to take the case.
Uelmen predicted that the California Supreme Court would agree to take the case directly.
Six of the seven justices on the high court were appointed by Republican governors. But so was Kramer, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. Kramer, 57, formerly practiced civil law, primarily commercial litigation.
On the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Ronald M. George is frequently a swing vote between the three most conservative and three most liberal justices.
While the issue moves through the courts, it is also likely to continue echoing in legislative chambers in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
Opponents of gay marriage almost certainly do not have time to place an initiative on November's ballot, but "if this opinion is affirmed all the way up the ladder, I think it's very clear there would be an effort to amend the Constitution by initiative," said state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).
"This opinion, whatever the legal grounds, is contrary to the people's voice," said Morrow, who has proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage.
Majorities of state voters in several polls in the last year said they oppose gay marriage.
In Washington state, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage fell far short of the two-thirds majority required for passage last year despite support from President Bush, who has sent mixed signals about pursuing the fight this year.
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas, Nancy Vogel, Dan Morain, Jordan Rau and Robert Salladay in Sacramento, and Maura Reynolds and Ronald Brownstein in Washington contributed to this report.
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California is among 40 states that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. Here's a look at the state's actions and gay marriage bans nationally:
1977: California Family Code is changed to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Oct. 1999: Gov. Gray Davis signs bill creating domestic partner registry. Subsequent laws add more rights.
Feb. 2004: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom orders marriage licenses to cover same-sex applicants. Over 4,000 are issued, before court-ordered halt.
Aug. 2004: The state Supreme Court voids all San Francisco gay marriages, saying mayor lacked authority to allow them.
Jan. 2005: A state domestic partnership law grants registered gay couples most benefits afforded married spouses.
Monday: San Francisco Superior Court finds that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples is unconstitutional.
Sources: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Human Rights Campaign, Associated Press. Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein Santiago