SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court has declared California's Proposition 8 unconstitutional, paving the way for a likely U.S. Supreme Court showdown on the voter-approved law.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that a lower court judge correctly interpreted the U.S. Constitution when he declared in 2010 that Proposition 8 was a violation of the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
"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," said Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the majority opinion. "The Constitution simply does not allow for 'laws of this sort'."
The passage of the ban followed the most expensive campaign on a social issue in U.S. history.
It was unclear when gay marriages might resume in California.
Lawyers for Proposition 8 sponsors and for the two couples who successfully sued to overturn the ban have said they would consider appealing to a larger panel of the court and then the U.S. Supreme Court if they did not receive a favorable ruling.
"Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently. There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted," the ruling states.Video: Prop. 8 ruled unconstitutional (on this page)
The panel also said there was no evidence that former Chief U.S. Judge Vaughn Walker was biased and should have disclosed before he issued his lower-court decision that he was gay and in a long-term relationship with another man. Walker publicly revealed he was gay after he retired.
Proposition 8 backers had asked the 9th Circuit to set aside Walker's ruling on constitutional grounds and because of the judge's personal life. It was the first instance of an American jurist's sexual orientation being cited as grounds for overturning a court decision.
Walker's successor as the chief federal judge in Northern California, James Ware, rejected the claims about Walker's personal life.
California voters passed Proposition 8 with 52 percent of the vote in November 2008, five months after the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage by striking down a pair of laws that had limited marriage to a man and a woman.
The ballot measure inserted the one man-one woman provision into the California Constitution, thereby overruling the court's decision. It was the first such ban to take away marriage rights from same-sex couples after they had already secured them.
The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and the Law, a think tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles, has estimated that 18,000 couples married during the four-month window before Proposition 8 took effect. The California Supreme Court upheld those marriages but ruled that voters had properly enacted the law.
With same-sex marriages unlikely to resume in California any time soon, Love Honor Cherish, a gay rights group based in Los Angeles, plans to start gathering signatures for a November ballot initiative asking voters to repeal Proposition 8.
Check back for more details on this breaking news story.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.