SAN FRANCISCO AND LOS ANGELES — A federal judge declared California's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional Wednesday, saying that no legitimate state interest justified treating gay and lesbian couples differently from others and that "moral disapproval" was not enough to save the voter-passed Proposition 8.
California "has no interest in differentiating between same-sex and opposite-sex unions," U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker said in his 136-page ruling.
The ruling was the first in the country to strike down a marriage ban on federal constitutional grounds. Previous cases have cited state constitutions.
Lawyers on both sides expect the ruling to be appealed and ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court during the next few years.
It is unclear whether California will conduct any same-sex weddings during that time. Walker stayed his ruling at least until Friday, when he will hold another hearing.
In striking down Proposition 8, Walker said the ban violated the federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection and of due process.
Previous court decisions have established that the ability to marry is a fundamental right that cannot be denied to people without a compelling rationale, Walker said. Proposition 8 violated that right and discriminated on the basis of both sex and sexual orientation in violation of the equal protection clause, he ruled.
The jurist, a Republican appointee, cited extensive evidence from the trial to support his finding that there was not a rational basis for excluding gays and lesbians from marriage. In particular, he rejected the argument advanced by supporters of Proposition 8 that children of opposite-sex couples fare better than children of same-sex couples, saying that expert testimony in the trial provided no support for that argument.
"The evidence shows conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples," Walker wrote.
Andy Pugno, a lawyer for the backers of the ballot measure, said he believed Walker would be overturned on appeal.
Walker's "invalidation of the votes of over 7 million Californians violates binding legal precedent and short-circuits the democratic process," Pugno said.
He called it "disturbing that the trial court, in order to strike down Prop. 8, has literally accused the majority of California voters of having ill and discriminatory intent when casting their votes for Prop. 8."
At least some legal experts said his lengthy recitation of the testimony could bolster his ruling during the appeals to come. Higher courts generally defer to trial judges' rulings on factual questions that stem from a trial, although they still could determine that he was wrong on the law.
John Eastman, a conservative scholar who supported Proposition 8, said Walker's analysis and detailed references to trial evidence were likely to persuade U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a swing vote on the high court, to rule in favor of same-sex marriage.
"I think Justice Kennedy is going to side with Judge Walker," said the former dean of Chapman University law school.
Barry McDonald, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University, said Walker's findings that homosexuality is a biological status instead of a voluntary choice, that children don't suffer harm when raised by same-sex couples and that Proposition 8 was based primarily on irrational fear of homosexuality "are going to make it more difficult for appellate courts to overturn this court's ruling."
Edward E. (Ned) Dolejsi, Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference, said he believed the judge's ruling was both legally and morally wrong.
"All public law and public policy is developed from some moral perspective, the morality that society judges is important," he said. To say that society shouldn't base its laws on moral views is "hard to even comprehend," he said.
In his decision, Walker said the evidence showed that "domestic partnerships exist solely to differentiate same-sex unions from marriage" and that marriage is "culturally superior."
He called the exclusion of same-couples from marriage "an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and marriage."
"That time has passed," he wrote.
Although sexual orientation deserves the constitutional protection given to race and gender, Proposition 8 would be unconstitutional even if gays and lesbians were afforded a lesser status, Walker said. His ruling stressed that there was no rational justification for banning gays from marriage.
To win a permanent stay pending appeal, Proposition 8 proponents must show that they are likely to prevail in the long run and that there would be irreparable harm if the ban is not enforced.
Lawyers for the two couples who challenged Proposition 8 said they were confident that higher courts would uphold Walker's ruling.