A federal judge has overturned California's gay marriage ban in a landmark case that could eventually force the US Supreme Court to confront the question of whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed.
Chief US District Judge Vaughn Walker made his ruling in a lawsuit filed by two gay couples who claimed the voter-approved ban violated their civil rights.
Judge Walker found the ban violated the Constitution's due process and equal protection clauses while failing "to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage licence".
"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," the judge wrote in his ruling. He also said proponents offered little evidence that they were motivated by anything other than animosity toward gays - beginning with their campaign to pass the ban, which included claims of wanting to protect children from learning about same-sex marriage in school.
"Proposition 8 played on a fear that exposure to homosexuality would turn children into homosexuals and that parents should dread having children who are not heterosexual," Mr Walker wrote.
California voters passed the ban as Proposition 8 in November 2008, five months after the state Supreme Court legalised gay marriage. Supporters had argued the ban was necessary to safeguard the traditional understanding of marriage and to encourage responsible childbearing
Gay couples waving rainbow and American flags outside the courthouse cheered, hugged and kissed as word of the ruling spread.
"This is a victory for the American people. It's a victory for our justice system," said former US Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who delivered the closing argument at trial for opponents of the ban. He said the ruling "vindicates the rights of a minority of our citizens to be treated with decency and respect and equality in our system".
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also praised the ruling as an important step toward equality and freedom for all people.
Despite the favourable ruling for same-sex couples, gay marriage will not be allowed to resume immediately. Judge Walker said he wants to decide whether his order should be suspended while the proponents of the ban pursue their appeal in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.