SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Thousands celebrated in the streets of San Francisco Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California following a bitter, five-year legal battle. But the nation's most populous state might have to wait at least 25 days before joining the 12 other states where gay couples already have the right to wed.
Sidestepping the larger question of whether banning gay marriage is unconstitutional, the high court justices held 5-4 that the coalition of religious conservative groups that qualified California's voter-approved ban for the ballot did not have the authority to defend it after state officials refused to do so.
As a result, the justices let stand a San Francisco trial court's ruling in August 2010 that overturned the ban. Other states were left to keep hashing out whether gay marriage should be legal within their borders.
In both San Francisco and the Los Angeles area, positive but subdued early responses turned into big celebrations as night came and gay marriage advocates came to grasp the meaning of the decisions.
As the sun set on San Francisco, a crowd surged from hundreds to thousands in the city's Castro neighborhood, with rainbow flags and confetti filling the air.
Lifelong Castro resident James Reynolds, 45, was among the celebrants, saying he had been married to his partner of 23 years several times, including once in California.
"It's been taken away from us," Reynolds said. "But we'll be married again."
In Southern California, an all-day celebration in West Hollywood grew and by evening included hundreds, including many same-sex couples dressed in red, white and blue.
One person carried a sign reading "Today we are American."
It remained unclear, however, when gay marriages might start again in the state. Backers of the ban known as Proposition 8 have 25 days to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. A midlevel appeals court also must lift a hold it placed on the lower court order before the state can be free to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Still, state officials moved quickly to signal their approval. Gov. Jerry Brown, who refused to defend Proposition 8 as governor and in his previous job as attorney general, said he had directed the California Department of Public Health to start issuing licenses to gay couples as soon as the hold ordered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is lifted.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris went even further, publicly urging the appellate court to act ahead of the final word from the Supreme Court.
"I'm absolutely saying that if the 9th Circuit lifts its stay before the 25 days, that marriages can resume in California, and shall resume in California," Harris said.
Without offering any specifics about their next move, lawyers for Proposition 8 sponsors insisted the attorney general and governor remained obligated by the California Constitution to enforce Proposition 8 and that Wednesday's ruling only legalized marriage for the two couples who sued to overturn the ban.
"Everyone understands that our opponents did not file this lawsuit to prove or demonstrate we did not have standing," said Austin Nimiocks, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom. "What was sought in this lawsuit was a 50-state mandate or to establish there is a fundamental right to same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court did not rule today,"
David Boies, a lawyer for the couples behind the lawsuit, said any attempt by opponents to delay gay marriage would be futile because of the ruling involving California and another Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that prevents the U.S. government from granting marriage benefits to gay couples.
"The court agreed with us, and agreed with the district court, that the proponents did not have any interest, did not suffer any harm from marriage equality," Boies said. "So that decision, particularly in combination with the DOMA decision, means it's quite clear we are going to have marriage equality in all 50 states."
The battle over same-sex marriage in California has been in overdrive since 2004, when the then-mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, ordered city clerks to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Lawsuits that resulted from his decision prompted the California Supreme Court to overturn the state's man-woman marriage laws in 2008, making California the second state after Massachusetts to legalize gay marriage.
In anticipation, opponents of same-sex marriage qualified a proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot banning same-sex marriage. Proposition 8 passed with 52 percent of the vote in November 2008.
Paul Katami, one of the co-plaintiffs who sued to overturn Proposition 8, was among those celebrating in West Hollywood on Wednesday night.
He said he and longtime partner Jeff Zarrillo were seeking status only a legal wedding could provide.
"There was something about that word marriage and what it meant. Something about the celebration and the right, the language and the association across the globe that comes with the word marriage."
The Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA, estimates that 18,000 couples got married in California in the four-and-a-half months that gay marriage was legal.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, standing amid hundreds applauding the ruling at City Hall, recalled how many fellow Democrats had criticized the action by him and Newsom as "too fast, too soon, too much."
"Well heck, now we have 12 states and the District of Columbia that have marriage equality, and now California will have it restored once again," he said.
AP writers Paul Elias, Haven Daley and Sudhin Thanawala contributed to this story.