In a 4-3 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court of California held that the state's constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry. With its ruling in In re Marriage Cases, California joins Massachusetts as the only states to afford this right to same-sex couples.  As in Massachusetts, the California decision applies for purposes of state law only; it does not make same-sex couples eligible for benefits and privileges extended to married couples under federal law.

Absent a court-ordered delay, the decision will become final in 30 days, and same-sex couples may be able to marry in California as early as the middle of next month. 

California already has a law, the Domestic Partner Act, that affords same-sex couples who register almost all of the same legal rights and responsibilities that are available through marriage. However, the Court found that by labeling the state-sanctioned relationship a "domestic partnership" rather than a "marriage," the Domestic Partner Act does not sufficiently protect the constitutional rights of same-sex couples. The decision provides that denying same-sex couples access to the historically and socially significant designation of marriage "poses at least a serious risk of denying the family relationship of same-sex couples…dignity and respect" equal to that enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples. The Court recognizes that a term other than "marriage" may be used to describe state-sanctioned unions between same-sex couples, as long as that term is also used to describe state-sanctioned unions for opposite-sex couples.

It is not yet clear what effect, if any, the Court's decision will have on the Domestic Partner Act, which extends rights not only to same-sex couples, but also to certain older opposite-sex couples.

By elevating sexual orientation to a constitutionally protected classification like race or religion, the ruling raises the potential for state constitutional challenges to various government programs and policies and to certain private actions.

The California Supreme Court's ruling may not be the last word on the issue.  In November, California voters will be presented with an amendment to the California Constitution that would limit marriage to opposite-sex unions, effectively overriding the Court's decision. 

For more information on how this ruling may affect your business, contact:

Ed Leeds at 215.864.8419 or leeds@ballardspahr.com


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