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A federal appeals court today ruled California's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, upholding a federal judge's landmark ruling in a case likely destined for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 2-1 decision, by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is a major lift for gay-rights advocates in a nationally-watched case. The proponents of Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban voters approved in 2008, are expected to appeal.

"By using their initiative power to target a minority group and withdraw a right that it possessed, without a legitimate reason for doing so, the people of California violated the Equal Protection Clause," the majority wrote. "We hold Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional on this ground."

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The decision by the appeals court upholds the historic ruling by U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker in 2010 that the ban violates gay people's equal protection and due process rights. The ruling has been stayed pending appeal.

The majority, in an opinion written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, said it decided the case on "narrow grounds." It ruled the gay marriage ban unconstitutional because it stripped gay and lesbian people in California of a right they previously enjoyed.

"Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples," the ruling said.

The judges did not not consider the broader question of whether gay and lesbian couples may ever be denied the right to be married.

The panel that issued its decision this morning also ruled against a bid to dismiss Walker's ruling because the judge, who has since retired, did not disclose that he is gay and was in a long-term relationship.

The matter is unlikely to be resolved until it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. The proponents of Proposition 8 could appeal directly to the Supreme Court or first request a review by a larger panel of the appeals court.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge N. Randy Smith said he was not convinced the state had no legitimate interest in Proposition 8, and he argued for judicial restraint when intervening in legislative enactments.

The ban's proponents,, carried the appeal forward after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, now governor, declined to defend the gay-marriage ban in court. The California Supreme Court ruled in November that proponents of ballot initiatives could defend the measures themselves in such cases.


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