The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' 2-1 decision upheld a lower court ruling in 2010 that the ban, known as Proposition 8, violated the right of homosexuals in California to marry whomever they want and that the state overstepped its bounds in legally restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
The appellate panel's ruling will likely not be the end of the squabble. The backers of Prop 8, which was narrowly passed in 2008, can either petition the full court to review their appeal or take the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the majority opinion of the 123-page ruling.
Justice N.R. Smith said in a partial dissent that while he agreed with the technicalities of the case, he was not convinced Prop 8 violated the 14th Amendment's provisions requiring equal-protection. Smith said the ballot measure did not ban homosexuals from living together as couples or raising children together, and pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court had never ruled on the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.
"All Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and legally use the designation 'marriage,' which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships," Smith said. "Proposition 8 serves no purpose and has no effect other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to opposite-sex couples."
Although the ruling was based on the Constitution, it will apply only to California, the San Francisco Chronicle said. The newspaper said the court took a narrower view of the issue because it revolved around voter disapproval of same-sex marriage.
There was no immediate word from Prop 8's backers on their next move. However Gov. Jerry Brown said in a brief statement: "The court has rendered a powerful affirmation of the right of same-sex couples to marry. I applaud the wisdom and courage of this decision."
Opponents of Prop 8 also cheered the ruling. "The 9th Circuit rightly held that a state simply may not take a group of people and shove them outside the law, least of all when it comes to something as important as the commitment and security of marriage," Evan Wolfson, president of the gay-rights group Freedom to Marry, said in a written statement.
Although the 9th Circuit has a reputation for relatively liberal decisions, the Chronicle described the judges who issued Tuesday's ruling as a mixed bag with Reinhard considered liberal, Smith conservative and Judge Michael Hawkins more middle-of-the road judge.