An initiative to ban gay marriage has qualified for the Nov. 4 ballot. Its passage would overrule the court's decision by amending the state constitution to limit marriage to a man and a woman.
In arguing for a delay, the amendment's sponsors predicted chaos if couples married in the next few months, only to have the practice halted at the ballot box.
The attorneys general from 11 states submitted briefs backing that claim. California does not have a residency requirement or waiting period for obtaining marriage licenses, forcing other states to consider whether it would recognize California gay marriages.
The four justices who denied the stay request -- three of them appointed by Republican governors -- were the same judges who joined in the majority opinion that found withholding marriage from same-sex couples constituted discrimination. The three dissenting justices said they thought a hearing on whether the stay should be granted was warranted.
Ronald Prentice, executive director of the coalition sponsoring the November measure, predicted the court's refusal to put the brakes on its historic ruling would motivate gay marriage opponents to vote for the ban.
"Certainly it was our hope that one or more members of the majority decision would recognize that they had overstepped their bounds, and would allow the November vote to speak on behalf of the state's citizens," Prentice said. "We are obviously disappointed by their continued arrogance to overrule the will of the people."
The majority did not elaborate on its reasons for denying the stay, but simply issued a one-page order saying its original ruling on marriage would be final at 5 p.m. on June 16.
Wednesday's denial clears the way for gay couples in the nation's most populous state to get married starting June 17, when state officials have said counties must start issuing new gender-neutral marriage licenses.
"We have exhausted our state court remedies here," said Glen Lavy, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed the leading stay request and is part of a coalition backing the fall ballot measure.
Lavy added that taking the issue to the federal courts was not an option because the Supreme Court did not give his group legal standing in the case. California Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office defended the gay marriage ban before the court, had urged the justices not to grant the stay.
"This was a 4-3 vote for legal chaos," Lavy said. "This refusal to wait until the constitutional process is played out confirms that this is kind of agenda-driven."
Gay rights advocates had urged the court to let same-sex marriages begin as quickly as possible, arguing there was no legal basis for continuing to subject gay couples to unequal treatment.
"These petitions clearly sought to do something that went far beyond the issue of same-sex marriage," said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, whose office represented the city in successfully suing to overturn California's one man-one woman marriage laws. "It would be unprecedented to postpone constitutional rights based on a speculation of how a political scenario may or may not have played out."
California has an estimated 108,734 same-sex households, according to 2006 U.S. Census figures. The state already offers same-sex couples who register as domestic partners many of the legal rights and responsibilities afforded to married couples, including the right to divorce and to sue for child support.
In its May 15 ruling, the high court struck down state laws against same-sex marriage -- including a gay marriage statute approved by voters in March 2000 -- and said domestic partnerships that provide many of the rights and benefits of matrimony are not enough.
Backers of the fall initiative now hope to add California to the list of 26 states that have approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. It is unclear whether marriages performed before the fall election would be nullified if the amendment passes. Some legal scholars have said the Supreme Court might get called on again to settle that question.
Despite the uncertainty, hundreds of couples already have scheduled appointments to obtain marriage licenses at San Francisco City Hall on June 17 and in the weeks after. Mayor Gavin Newsom said the city planned to have extended hours to avoid "a mass wedding."
"We want to allow for hundreds, if not thousands, of people to come to San Francisco to start their lives together" Newsom said.
Two polls taken after the court overturned the marriage laws but before the amendment qualified for the ballot had different findings on voter attitudes toward the measure.
A Los Angeles Times poll of 705 registered voters found that 54 percent of those surveyed backed the measure and 35 percent opposed it. A Field Poll of 1,052 voters found that support for the amendment stood at 40 percent and 43 percent, depending on how the question was asked.