updated 10/8/2004 9:01:31 PM ET 2004-10-09T01:01:31

California’s constitution permits laws against gay marriage, the state’s attorney general declared Friday in a long-awaited legal opinion that sought to avoid offending either side of the debate.

While acknowledging that “committed and loving relationships between two individuals deserve recognition under California law,” Attorney General Bill Lockyer said it was up to the voters or the Legislature to decide questions about whether gay couples should be allowed to marry.

The opinion was in response to a pair of lawsuits seeking to overturn laws prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying. The lawsuits claim California laws violate the state constitution’s anti-discrimination provisions.

The plaintiffs sued in March after the California Supreme Court ordered San Francisco officials to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

The plaintiffs are relying heavily on the same arguments that persuaded Massachusetts’ highest court to legalize gay marriage there this year — namely, that laws limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman discriminate against gays, violating their civil rights and several constitutional guarantees.

Both supporters and opponents of gay marriage were eager to see how Lockyer, a Democrat who has expressed interest in running for governor in 2006, planned to navigate the politically volatile question.

By taking the position that any change in marriage eligibility criteria must come from the Legislature, however, Lockyer essentially advanced the same legal strategy that Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, a fellow Democrat, unsuccessfully used to prevent gay couples from being able to wed in his state.

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