A judge in San Francisco has decided that same-sex weddings must be allowed to resume in California next week.
Judge Vaughn Walker, who last week found that the state's ban on gay marriage "disadvantages gays and lesbians without any rational justification," said that opponents of same-sex unions have until 5pm on Wednesday to get an appeal court ruling that would put new marriages on hold.
If they fail, couples will be allowed to tie the knot as early as that night. The decision comes a week after Judge Walker struck out Proposition 8, a law approved by voters at the 2008 election which defined marriage as a "union between a man and a woman," on the grounds that it violates principles of equality enshrined in the US Constitution.
Although the ruling, issued at lunchtime yesterday, initially seemed like a signal victory for the gay-rights lobby, further examination of the decision suggested that it would in fact leave neither side in the bitterly fought political debate entirely happy.
Gay couples who had gathered at San Francisco City Hall in anticipation of a ruling which would instantly allow them to get married, were disappointed by the fact that the ruling was stayed, albeit temporarily, to allow for an appeal. "They should have lifted the stay today," James Olivera, 58, told reporters.
Protesters opposed to gay marriage, who were also at the venue in large numbers, were equally dissatisfied, since Judge Walker has already declared Proposition 8 illegal. "God's Holy law has been trampled on by one person," Viktor Choban, 27, told the Reuters news agency.
The big question, for both sides, is whether opponents of gay marriage will now be able to persuade the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals to agree that gay weddings should be put on hold while it considers their objections. Only a handful of similar cases have ever reached that Appeal Court, so legal experts have little chance of second guessing how the chips will fall.
However Judge Walker's 136-page decision, which was released last week, was worded in a fashion that will make it extremely hard to overturn unless opponents of gay marriage can provide proof to support their contention that gay marriages damage traditional unions.
During the initial trial earlier this year, he heard contributions from 18 expert witnesses, provided by both trials about topics ranging from the fitness of gay parents and religious views on homosexuality, to the historical meaning of marriage and the political influence of the gay rights movement. But when opponents of gay marriage were asked to back up their opinions with factual evidence, they were unable to provide any.
Judge Walker therefore noted "same-sex love and intimacy are well-documented in human history," and declared that Proposition 8 "does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples."
Religious organisations, who have put tens of millions of dollars into efforts to outlaw gay marriage in California, were angered by the ruling and issued press releases claiming that Walker, appointed by Ronald Reagan and generally considered to be a conservative, had conducted the trial in a "biased" manner and was "openly gay".
Whatever now happens, the issue of gay marriage in the US is unlikely to be properly settled until it reaches the Supreme Court, at which point the verdict of the judges would apply to, and be enforceable in, every State in the country.