For the third time in five years, the California Supreme Court ruled Tuesday on the question of same-sex marriage.
This time the court upheld the voters' right to limit the definition of marriage to a union between one man and one woman.
The court's decision rested on the majority's judgment that Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot was not a fundamental revision to the constitution of the kind that could only be proposed by the Legislature or a constitutional convention.
Instead, the court explained in its 6-1 decision, the ban on gay marriage was a mere amendment, and one the people were entirely within their rights to enact.
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Despite the stakes for individuals, couples and society, the change did not significantly alter the structure of California government, the court ruled.
"Same-sex couples continue to enjoy the same substantive core benefits ... as those enjoyed by opposite-sex couples — including the constitutional right to enter into an officially recognized and protected family relationship with the person of one's choice and to raise children in that family if the couple so chooses--with the sole, albeit significant, exception that the designation of 'marriage' is, by virtue of the new state constitutional provision, now reserved for opposite-sex couples," the court found.
While upholding Proposition 8's ban on gay marriage, the court also confirmed the 18,000 gay couples who had married before the proposition took effect.
In doing so, the court gave each side in the gay marriage issue something to be pleased with as well as something to be disappointed over.
In general, though, Tuesday's ruling was viewed as a victory for the millions of Californians who believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
And, it was a bitter disappointment to the millions of other Californians who support the right of same-sex couples to marry and enjoy the full status as as opposite-sex couples.
But, the court's decision in no way ends the debate; it simply returns it to the democratic process where it belongs.
California's constitution makes it clear that in this state, the people are supreme. In this case, the people overruled the highest court in the state, and that court has now stepped aside and acknowledged the people's right to do so. In an era with so much cynicism about government and about judicial intervention, this was a good decision.
But it is also within the right of the people to overrule themselves, and on the issue of gay marriage, they may have an opportunity to do that as early as next year. Even before Tuesday's ruling, supporters of gay marriage had vowed to place a measure on the ballot giving same sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals.
Whether that happens next year or later, eventually the issue will be put before voters again.
And, that's exactly where it should be: We, the people, should be deciding these issues, not the courts.