By Ruth Conniff
After four years on stand-by, thousands of gay couples hoping to marry legally in California learned Friday they could be in for another six-month wait.
That didn't stop a flurry of excitement among gay rights activists over news the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the state's same-sex marriage ban.
The final decision, expected by June, could have far-reaching implications for the future of gay marriage, not only in California, but also throughout the United States.
"It's incredible the progress that has been made," said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, a plaintiff in the case. "The Supreme Court has signaled its readiness to consider the civil rights issue of our time."
At the heart of the case is California's Proposition 8, a ballot measure passed by voters in 2008 that restricted marriage to relationships between a man and a woman. That effectively banned gay marriage in the state, which California's Supreme Court had legalized a few months earlier.
Since then, two federal courts have ruled California's ban unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to uphold that opinion. If it does, experts say it could open the way to dissolving gay marriage bans across the country.
The justices said today they will also consider challenges to the 1996 U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, which blocks married same-sex couples from receiving federal tax breaks and other benefits bestowed on heterosexual spouses.
"Today's news is nothing short of a milestone moment, quite frankly, for equality," proclaimed Chad Griffin, co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization sponsoring the case against Proposition 8.
Mr. Griffin pointed to growing support for gay marriage across the country, evidenced in opinion polls and the recent approval of same-sex marriage by voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington State. He also noted President Obama's declared support. Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage.
Foes of gay marriage in California vowed to continue their opposition. Protect Marriage, the official proponent of Proposition 8, issued a statement on its website saying the organization sees the Supreme Court's decision as an opportunity to have the opinion of California voters heard.
"More than seven million Californians of all races, creeds, and walks of life voted for Proposition 8 to preserve the traditional definition of marriage," the statement said. "They believe that the unique relationship between one man and one woman continues to meaningfully serve as the cornerstone of society."
The organization's spokesman cold not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, some gay marriage advocates in California expressed frustration at the Supreme Court's decision.
If the court had dismissed the Proposition 8 case, the ruling to strike it down would have stood, allowing gay marriage to resume immediately.
"Emotionally, I have to say my heart hit my feet when I read the decision," said Lisa Phillian, a same-sex wedding officiant and owner of Rainbow Weddings in Rosemead, southern California. "I have so many clients that have been waiting to have a legal marriage."
The approximately 40 gay couples she marries a year are recognized in the state as domestic partners. But they long for the rights and protections a full legal marriage would bring, such as transferable Social Security benefits or a military pension, she said. Some have spouses serving in the U.S. Army and fear what would happen to them if their partner were killed, Ms. Phillian said.
Still, she said the Supreme Court's decision to examine Proposition 8 could ultimately be worthwhile.