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In re Marriage Cases


In 2004, the State Supreme Court of California ordered the city and county of San Francisco to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and said that legal action could proceed about whether California’s restriction of marriage to different-sex couples violates the state’s constitution. Lambda Legal, the National Center of Lesbian Rights and the ACLU promptly filed a lawsuit against the state to win the right to marry for same-sex couples throughout California. The case has moved through the California court system and in May 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that barring lesbian and gay couples from civil marriage violates the California Constitution.


California’s constitution guarantees equality, liberty and privacy for all. In 2005, the California Legislature passed the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would have ensured equal treatment under the law by allowing same-sex couples to marry in California. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. The California Legislature passed the bill again in 2007 by an even wider margin. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it a second time, saying the question should be decided by the California Supreme Court and that he would respect the high court’s decision.

Lambda Legal's Impact

This landscape-shifting victory gives gay and lesbian couples all of the rights, benefits and obligations of marriage under state law, along with the equal dignity that comes with the word itself. Because more gay and lesbian couples make their home in California than in any other state, winning complete legal equality for same-sex couples in the Golden State provides secure legal protection and equal respect to many thousands of law-abiding, tax-paying families. It also helps show the rest of the country that ending discrimination against gay and lesbian families has only positive effects.


  • February 2004 Officials of the city and county of San Francisco conclude it violates the California Constitution to withhold marriage licenses from same-sex couples; from mid-February to mid-March, San Francisco issues licenses and performs marriages for roughly 4,000 same-sex couples.
  • February 2004 Conservative religious legal groups file two lawsuits against San Francisco demanding court orders to stop the marriages; Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the ACLU are given permission to join those cases on behalf of same-sex couples who wish to marry and Equality California.
  • February 2004 Gay activists Robin Tyler and Troy Perry and their respective life partners sue Los Angeles County demanding marriage licenses; we are given permission to intervene in this case on behalf of Equality California.
  • March 2004 The California Supreme Court orders San Francisco to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until it has been decided in court whether the state constitution guarantees lesbian and gay couples’ right to marry as it does for heterosexual couples. Lambda Legal and cocounsel immediately file our own lawsuit against the state seeking the right of same-sex couples to marry throughout California.
  • June 2004 The California Judicial Council orders that the six active cases in the state courts concerning marriage for same-sex couples be gathered into one judicial proceeding in the trial court in San Francisco; along with cocounsel, we are participating in four of those cases.
  • August 2004 The California Supreme Court invalidates the marriages of the thousands of same-sex couples who had married in San Francisco, without resolving the question in our main case: whether the California Constitution guarantees same-sex couples an equal right to marry.
  • March 2005 In a historic ruling, the California state trial court says that, under the state’s constitution, lesbian and gay couples must be allowed to marry.
  • November 2005 Lambda Legal, NCLR and ACLU file briefs in the California Court of Appeal urging the court to uphold lower court’s ruling.
  • July 2006 Oral arguments made before California Court of Appeals.
  • October 2006 In a 2–1 decision, California Court of Appeal rules that California may continue to bar same-same couples from marriage.
  • November 2006 Petitions are filed asking California Supreme Court to reverse the Court of Appeal decision.
  • December 2006 The California Supreme Court unanimously agrees to review the intermediate appellate decision.
  • April – August 2007 Lambda Legal, NCLR and the ACLU file multiple briefs explaining why denying lesbian and gay couples the freedom to marry is unconstitutional. We also file a supplemental brief requested by the California Supreme Court addressing four additional questions. In addition, we reply to the briefs filed by the state and the conservative religious legal groups on these questions.
  • September 2007 A broad array of mainstream civil rights, religious, community and professional groups, along with leading legal scholars and bar associations, plus California’s largest cities and many others file an unprecedented 30 friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of more than 500 organizations supporting marriage equality.
  • November 2007 Lambda Legal, NCLR and the ACLU file brief answering the 15 friend-of-the-court briefs filed by opponents of marriage for same-sex couples.
  • March 2008 A remarkable three hours of oral argument are presented before the California Supreme Court.
  • May 2008 The California Supreme Court issues an historic ruling that California's laws excluding lesbian and gay couples from civil marriage violate the state Constitution, by denying these couples their fundamental right to marry and by discriminating against them in violation of the equal protection clause.
  • March 2008 Oral arguments presented before the California Supreme Court.
  • May 2008 Victory! In a history-making 4-3 decision, the California Supreme Court rules that barring lesbian and gay couples from marriage violates the state Constitution. Conservative religious groups ask the court to delay the decision's effect until after the November election, arguing voters may approve an initiative to change the Constitution and reverse the decision. We oppose this request, as does California's Attorney General.
  • June 2008 California Supreme Court denies conservative religious groups’ requests for delay, ordering that the marriage ruling shall take effect on June 16, 2008 at 5 pm. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon become the first same-sex couple to marry in California with a duly issued license, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom solemnizing their union for a second time. Thousands of lesbian and gay couples follow their example in all corners of the state, with many coming from other states and countries to take their vows with California’s welcome.
  • November 2008 Prop 8 is approved by 52 percent of California voters. Changing the California state constitution to exclude marriage for same-sex couples, Prop 8 strips away the fundamental right affirmed by the California Supreme Court in May 2008.

Case Information

Status: Closed
Outcome: Landmark Case


Joshua Rymer and Tim Frazer, Jewelle Gomez and Diane Sabin, Myra Beals and Ida Matson, Arthur Frederick Adams and Devin Wayne Baker, Jeanne Rizzo and Pali Cooper, Karen Shain and Jody Sokolower, Janet Wallace and Deborah Hart, Corey Davis and Andre LeJeune, Rachel Lederman and Alexsis Beach, Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, our Family Coalition, Equality California


Lambda Legal
Jennifer C. Pizer, Jon W. Davidson

Co-counsel/Cooperating Attorneys
Shannon Minter of lead counsel National Center for Lesbian Rights; Tamara Lange of the ACLU of Northern California; Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU of Southern California; Stephen Bomse and Christopher Stoll of Heller Ehrman LLP; and the Law Office of David C. Codell