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Court rules in favor of Proposition 8

For some -- the will of the people.

For others -- a blow against equal rights.

Those opposing views dominated conversation at water coolers and coffee shops statewide Tuesday. The buzz involved the California Supreme Court's decision to uphold Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

The court also decided, however, that same-sex couples who tied the knot before Prop. 8 took effect can remain married.

Like the rest of the state, residents in Merced County issued varied opinions Tuesday about the court's decision. Robert Olzack, an Atwater resident who volunteered in support of Prop. 8, said he was pleased with the court's decision. "When Prop. 8 was voted in, it sent a message to the Legislature that this is what the people of California felt was right," Olzack said. "We don't want a few people making decisions for the majority. That's not the way it works in a democracy."

Le Grand resident and gay rights activist Christina Borges, 31, said her feelings were mixed about the court's decision. Borges and her wife, 44-year-old Benita Martinez, were among the first same-sex couples to wed in Merced County last year.

While Borges, the president of Merced PFLAG (Parent, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), said she's glad the court's decision won't affect her marriage, she's upset that same-sex couples who are unmarried won't be able to enjoy the same rights. "It's bittersweet, in the sense that my marriage is still legal," Borges said. "But I feel for everybody who isn't in the same boat, who does not have that right. It's nonsense. It truly is."

Proposition 8 amended the California Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Statewide, it passed in November with 52 percent of the vote. In Merced County, a whopping 70 percent of voters supported Prop. 8, with 44,800 voters favoring the measure, compared to 18,520 people who voted against it.

Gay rights activists took the issue to court after the election, arguing that the ban was improperly put to voters and amounted to a revision -- which required legislative approval -- not an amendment.

The state supreme court's decision, written by Chief Justice Ronald George, rejected 6-1 an argument by gay rights activists that the ban revised the California Constitution's equal protection clause to such a dramatic degree that it first needed the Legislature's approval. The court said Californians have a right, through the ballot box, to change their constitution.

In addition, the court stated that an amendment isn't retroactive unless it's clear that the voters intended it to apply it retroactively, and there was no such clear indication in Prop. 8.

About 18,000 same-sex couples in the state were married before the November vote on Prop. 8, fearing it could be passed. For a short period of time, gay marriage became legal in California last May, when the California Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the right to wed.

Despite Tuesday's ruling, there are those who disagree with the court's decision to allow same-sex couples -- married before Prop. 8 was passed -- to remain married.

Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the main backers of Prop. 8, said the state shouldn't recognize same-sex couples who are married. "The court is opening up a really large legal can of worms, so it is problematic," Brown said. "But I am really disappointed that the court created this problem in the first place."

Even with the California Supreme Court's decision, however, many same-sex couples say it's only a matter of time before gay marriage is legalized in California, especially given the number of states that have already done so.

Some gay rights activists foresee a future ballot initiative that would legalize gay marriage, overturning Prop. 8. Lisa Cascia, a 44-year-old Merced resident who's married to another woman, believes time is on the side of the gay rights movement. "I think that it's been shown, throughout history, that as people see injustices, they eventually come around," she said.

While Olzack said he doesn't see an end to the gay marriage argument, he hopes Prop. 8 will remain the law in California. "Hopefully, (gay marriage) won't have to be voted on in every single election," he said. "Even if it does get back on the ballot, that still doesn't make it right."

Same-sex marriage is legal in five states: Iowa, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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