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A federal judge overturned California's ban on same-sex marriage Wednesday, the latest twist in a legal saga which could have nationwide implications for the divisive social issue.
In a written opinion, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled in favor of rights activists who argued that a November 2008 referendum which barred gays and lesbians from tying the knot was discriminatory and therefore violated the US Constitution.
The referendum, known as Proposition 8, was passed by a 52 percent majority only six months after California's Supreme Court overturned a previous ban on same-sex weddings triggering a flood of same-sex marriages.
However Walker wrote in a ruling that Proposition 8 failed to "advance any rational basis" to deny gay men and lesbians a marriage license.
"Indeed the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California constitution the notion that opposite sex couples are superior to same sex couples," Walker wrote.
"Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligations to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional."
Opponents of same sex marriage had already signaled they would appeal Walker's decision if it went against them.
Walker later issued a ruling granting a temporary stay of his order until Friday, allowing opponents of same-sex marriage time to file appeals and appearing to bar an immediate resumption of weddings between gays and lesbians.
Gay rights activists meanwhile praised the decision but warned they were ready for further legal battles ahead.
"There are more legal challenges, debates and votes to come," said Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center.
California's Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger welcomed Wednesday's ruling, describing it as "a milestone in America's road to equality and freedom for all people."
"For the hundreds of thousands of Californians in gay and lesbian households who are managing their day-to-day lives, this decision affirms the full legal protections and safeguards I believe everyone deserves," Schwarzenegger said.
However opponents of same-sex marriage lashed out at Walker's ruling, with Randy Thomasson of the socially conservative SaveCalifornia.com -- Campaign for Children and Families describing it as a "terrible blow" to voter rights.
"Judge Walker has ignored the written words of the Constitution, which he swore to support and defend and be impartially faithful to, and has instead imposed his own homosexual agenda upon the voters, the parents and the children of California," Thomasson said.
"This is a blatantly unconstitutional ruling because marriage isn't in the US Constitution," Thomasson added.
Proposition 8 effectively nullified a May 2008 California Supreme Court decision by redefining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.
A failed attempt to overturn the referendum in California in 2009 prompted activists to take their fight to federal courts, a strategy seen as risky because it could result in a US Supreme Court ruling, which would settle the issue once and for all with no possibility of appeal.
The federal lawsuit was filed by two same-sex couples who are represented in part by Theodore Olson and David Boies, high-powered attorneys who famously sparred on opposite sides in the Bush v. Gore lawsuit in 2000.
Attorneys for gay marriage opponents argued during 13 days of hearings earlier this year that Proposition 8 is legal and based on a centuries-old tradition of male-female marriage, including the inability of same-sex couples to conceive children.
However Walker gave a withering verdict of the tactics used by opponents of gay marriage during the campaign to pass Proposition 8.
"Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians," Walker wrote. "The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite sex couples."
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