SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The California Supreme Court on Thursday voided the nearly 4,000 same-sex marriages sanctioned in San Francisco this year and ruled unanimously that the mayor overstepped his authority by issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
The court said the city's decision to issue the licenses and perform the ceremonies violated a 1977 state law that defines marriage as a union between a man and woman.
The justices separately decided with a 5-2 vote to nullify the 3,995 marriages performed between Feb. 12 and March 11, when the court halted the weddings.
About a dozen gay and lesbian couples, some wearing wedding dresses and tuxedos, waited on the steps of the Supreme Court building, and some cried when the decision was read.
While the same-sex marriages had virtually no legal value, their nullification dismayed Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in San Francisco.
"Del is 83 years old and I am 79," Lyon said. "After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time."
The court focused its ruling on the limits of local government authority, and did not resolve whether the California Constitution would permit a same-sex marriage. That question will have to wait as a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits over the gay weddings rise through the state's courts.
Chief Justice Ronald George, writing for the majority, noted that Thursday's ruling doesn't address "the substantive legal rights of same sex couples." Instead, it insists that local officials can't legislate state law from city halls or county government centers.
"The legal issue before us implicates the interest of all individuals in ensuring that public officials execute their official duties in a manner that respects the limits of the authorities granted to them as officeholders," George wrote.
Anti-gay-marriage groups hailed the ruling, saying Mayor Gavin Newsom acted prematurely.
"Instead of helping his cause, Mayor Newsom has set back the same-sex marriage agenda and laid the foundation for the pro-marriage movement to once and for all win this battle to preserve traditional marriage," said Mathew Staver, who represents Campaign for California Families in its lawsuit.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who challenged the city's gay marriages directly to the Supreme Court, said Thursday that he regards it "as a ruling that simply says rule of law, rule of law, rule of law. That's how we govern our society."
But Newsom was defiant at a news conference at City Hall, where he appeared with city officials, many of them gay and lesbian, and spoke to a number of couples who he had allowed to get married. He said his "heart was heavy" that the marriages were voided, but vowed to carry on the city's constitutional challenge.
"There is nothing that any court decision or politician can do that will take that (wedding) moment away," Newsom said. "I'm proud of those 4,000 couples."
San Francisco's gay weddings, which followed a landmark ruling by Massachusetts' top court allowing gay marriage - prompted President Bush to push for changing the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, an effort that has become campaign fodder this election year.
"The only person playing politics with this is the president of the United States," Newsom said. "Shame on him. What he's doing is wrong."
The justices said when they agreed to hear the case that they would entertain a challenge arguing that gays should be treated the same as heterosexual couples under the California Constitution, if ever such a lawsuit reached the high court.
Gay and lesbian couples immediately took up their invitation, were countersued, and the cases were consolidated. Legal briefs are due in September in San Francisco Superior Court, and the Supreme Court won't likely hear the case for another year or more. Lockyer said he's not against gay marriage, but would wait until filing the briefs before announcing his legal opinion on their constitutionality.
Newsom argued in May that the ability of same-sex couples to marry was a "fundamental right" that compelled him to act. He cited the California Constitution's ban against discrimination, and claimed he was duty-bound to follow this higher authority rather than state laws banning gay marriage.
The Arizona-based Christian law firm Alliance Defense Fund, a plaintiff in one of two cases the justices decided Thursday, had told the justices that Newsom's "act of disobedience" could lead other local officials to sanction "polygamists."
Jordan Lorence, the fund's attorney, said the court "has sent a message to say this is not the way you change the legal system, by defying the rule of law."
A state constitutional challenge by gays in Massachusetts prompted that state's highest court last year to endorse the gay marriages that began there in May. San Francisco's wedding march fed the culture war in statehouses and ballot boxes nationwide.
Missouri voters this month endorsed a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage - a move designed to prevent that state's judiciary from agreeing with the arguments Newsom is making in California.
A judge in Washington state this month also ruled in favor of gay marriage, pending a resolution from that state's top court.
Louisiana residents are to vote on the same issue Sept. 18. Then Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah are to vote Nov. 2. Initiatives are pending in Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio.
Four states - Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska and Nevada - already have similar amendments in their constitutions.
The cases decided Thursday are Lockyer v. San Francisco, S122923; Lewis v. Alfaro, S122865.
Editors: David Kravets has been covering state and federal courts for more than a decade. Associated Press Writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.