California's Supreme Court ruled that a ban on gay marriage was unlawful Thursday, effectively leaving same-sex couples in America's most populous state free to tie the knot in a landmark ruling.
In an opinion that analysts say could have nationwide implications for the issue, the seven-member panel voted 4-3 in favor of plaintiffs who argued that restricting marriage to men and women was discriminatory.
"Limiting the designation of marriage to a union 'between a man and a woman' is unconstitutional and must be stricken from the statute," California Chief Justice Ron George said in the written opinion.
The ruling added that all California couples had a "basic civil right" to marry "without regard to their sexual orientation."
Before Thursday only one state -- Massachusetts -- allowed gay marriage, although California, New Jersey and Vermont have legislation which grants same-sex partners many of the same legal rights as married couples.
Plaintiffs in the court case exploded with joy after their victory.
"It's the best day of my life, quite honestly I'm thrilled for all of us," Diane Olson said.
Phyllis Lyon, 80, said she had waited more than 50 years for the opportunity to marry her partner Del Martin, 84.
The couple had been together 55 years and married in San Francisco on Feb 12, 2004, only to see their union later declared void. "We are thrilled that this day has finally come."
Thursday's ruling came after a long-running legal battle that erupted in 2000 when California voters approved a law declaring that only marriages between men and women could be legally recognized.
In February 2004, the City of San Francisco defied state law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, arguing that existing laws were illegal because they violated equal rights legislation.
A court later halted the issuance of licenses and declared that same-sex marriages that took place during this period were void.
However, San Francisco and civil rights activists waged a legal case arguing that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional and that the law should be struck down.
In 2005, the San Francisco Superior Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that there was no justification for refusing to allow marriages.
But the decision was overturned in 2006 by the California Court of Appeal, which ruled in a 2-1 decision that the state's desire to "carry out the expressed wishes of a majority" was sufficient to preserve the existing law.
California lawmakers have also voted in favor of gay marriage but the bill was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has said that the matter is for the state's court system to decide on.
Legal analysts say Thursday's court ruling could have wide-ranging implications for other US states, noting the California Supreme Court's history of landmark rulings.
"The California Supreme Court's example is often emulated and it often is sort of a groundbreaker," said David Cruz, a law professor at the University of Southern California and an expert in constitutional law.
"In the 20th century California was the first state to strike down laws against inter-racial marriage. They did that 19 years before the U.S. Supreme Court got around to it."
New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch said the California ruling "affirmed that equality does not come with exceptions."
"This historic decision should push the U.S. government to stop obstructing equal treatment of relationships and families," said Scott Long, director of HRW's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender program.
But Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, reacted with dismay, insisting "marriage is naturally for a man and a woman."
"If the institution of marriage is redefined and therefore destroyed in the law, the wellbeing of children is threatened, both emotionally, socially, even physically," Thomasson added.© Wire reports