SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California's Supreme Court decides on Tuesday whether gay marriage is legal in the most populous U.S. state, a key battleground in American culture wars.
Passage of a gay marriage ban in a November California vote bucked the state's reputation as a liberal trendsetter and sparked national protests by gay advocates and congratulations among social conservatives.
A flurry of pro-gay marriage rulings and votes in Iowa and New England this year has reversed a trend toward banning them. Most U.S. states do not allow same-sex marriage, but both sides are gearing up for renewed battle, mostly at state ballot boxes.
Some leaders from both sides of the gay marriage issue have predicted that the California justices will uphold the ban but also allow approximately 18,000 same-sex marriages from last summer to stand.
California has an unusually strong direct democracy. Voters can decide virtually any issue through propositions and state constitutional amendments, such as the gay marriage ban, Proposition 8, which passed in November.
That ended gay marriage in California, which had begun in June 2008 after being legalized by the state supreme court.
In the court case to be decided on Tuesday, ban opponents argued that the majority cannot vote away civil rights of a minority. Ban proponents countered that the will of the people as expressed by the vote is sacrosanct in the state.
Also at stake are the fates of the same-sex couples married during the summer of legality. The ruling is expected at 10 a.m. local time (1:00 p.m. EDT).
Gay advocates are already preparing a drive to overturn the ban, if necessary, as soon as the November 2010 election. Their opponents aim to duplicate their California success in Iowa by amending the state constitution to outlaw gay marriage, rebuffing the state supreme court which legalized same-sex unions.
Five states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and Iowa -- have legalized gay marriage. A handful of others, including New York and New Hampshire, have made substantial headway with such legislation, but more than 40 states explicitly ban gay marriage.
Reporting by Peter Henderson; editing by Mohammad Zargham