The Court, through Justice George, contends that Prop 8 is a semantics issue, because all it does is prevent a particular word, "marriage," from attaching to a particular relationship. Since there's no "inalienable" right to call a relationship by any particular word, the Court reasons that Prop 8 does not infringe upon anyone's state Constitutional rights.
In addition, California has passed other laws protecting civil unions and guaranteeing similar rights to gay persons, so there's little evidence of widespread state discrimination against gay persons on the issue of fundamental rights. [Justice Moreno disagrees, saying the Court already found gay persons to be a suspect class previously, which requires them to use a "strict scrutiny" analysis. A "strict scrutiny" analysis means the Court has to strike down a law unless it is necessary to achieve an end result.]
Justice Werdegar concurs in the opinion, but makes a point of saying that laws actually discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation must "survive the highest level of scrutiny" (she seems to agree with Justice Moreno in spirit). Although she doesn't quite say it, Justice Werdegar apparently doesn't think this particular amendment actually discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation because civil unions provide the same protections as opposite-sex marriage. [She really should have written the opinion--she has a more balanced writing style than Justice George, who is thorough, but pedantic.]
Justice Moreno, the only dissenter, says that once you enact a law, you must treat everyone equally under it. He says that the whole point of the state Constitution is to protect all, not some, individuals from arbitrary government power. Once you overturn that framework, you alter the state Constitution, and the Court has the power to prevent a fundamental alteration to the Constitution. He starts with a great quote from a recent Iowa case:
The absolute equality of all persons before the law [is] the very foundation principle of our government. -- Varnum v. Brien (Iowa 2009)
So it comes down to this: is being able to call your relationship a "marriage" an "inalienable right"? The Court seems to say that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
Personally, I don't think courts can change anyone's personal beliefs, so I am not outraged by the opinion. If anything, I hope this shows the public that the law is generally toothless when it comes to advancing progressive civil liberties. Why is that? Well, the Court decided the issue correctly, at least from a legal standpoint. All but one Justice agreed, which shows you this was an "easy" case to decide. That's just my point: the law isn't designed to change anything--it's designed to provide stability and predictability--the exact opposite of change. Of course, it is also supposed to protect minorities, but here, the Court saw the presence of civil unions as sufficient legal protection. Ironically, if the state had failed to enact civil unions, this case might/should have gone the other way.
The real problem is that the entire institution of marriage is failing. Instead of trying to fix the relatively high divorce rate, marriage proponents have fixated on strengthening the marriage "club" by excluding others from it. Exclusivity is indeed one way of adding value--anyone who belongs to a country club knows that--but it's certainly not the best way. The fact that pro-marriage types have to resort to Prop 8 shows that marriage itself is failing. As a result, this decision isn't a victory for marriage--it's a sign that marriage is so frayed, so weak, that it now relies on negative traits--i.e., excluding others--not positive ones, to bolster itself.
People keep asking how this could happen in California when supposedly more conservative Iowa allows greater protection for same-sex couples. I bet Iowans are more secure in their marriages than Californians and don't mind other people getting married. Gay marriage is a "threat" if you think your own marriage is falling apart and need an external boost to prop it up. On the other hand, if your marriage is fine, and your friends' marriages are doing well, you probably don't feel the need to butt your nose in anyone else's business. Iowans--who basically gave President Obama the Democratic presidential nomination and therefore his eventual election--are probably on the right side of history again.
I interpret the court's decision as a narrow one. The Court held that there is no "inalienable" right under the state Constitution for anyone--opposite-sex or same-sex--to call themselves "married." There is, however, a fundamental right to choose your own partner and raise the kids of your choice. In some ways, this decision might help gay persons get better access to adoption agencies, which I've heard discriminate against gay couples. There is another silver lining: the Court ruled that the 18,000 gay couples who got married before Prop 8 was enacted are still "married" because taking away their marriage would violate due process.
Update: here is Family Code 297.5, which establishes equality between same-sex and opposite-sex unions:
297.5. (a) Registered domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law, whether they derive from statutes, administrative regulations, court rules, government policies, common law, or any other provisions or sources of law, as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.
The California Court's ruling applies only within the state of California. A state supreme court cannot decide federal issues or issues relating to other states' substantive rights.
All of the comments I've heard against the decision--immigration, tax issues, and cross-border rights--relate to federal issues that are unreachable by a state supreme court. Again, state courts cannot interfere or decide federally pre-empted issues. Why not? Because then Californians might be subject to what Mississippi courts decide, and vice-versa. That potential for conflict is why we have a federal government to step in when these kinds of conflicts occur. Unfortunately, our federal legislative body, Congress, is not progressive when it comes to same-sex civil unions. As a result, the issue of same-sex civil unions will probably be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Once you understand the limits of state courts, you should understand that California's state supreme Court decided the case properly and rendered a decision that is pro-gay-rights within the boundaries of its jurisdiction.
How could the United States Supreme Court protect same-sex couples and their ability to enter into state-sanctioned unions? The answer is that the Court must first determine whether gay persons are a protected class, thereby requiring a "strict scrutiny" analysis. The Court might use the passage of the "Defense of Marriage Act" to show governmental animus and bias against gay persons, but that might be a stretch, given that President Clinton signed the bill.
Still, as Justice Moreno points out, there is much supporting evidence that allows a finding of a protected class, such as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (i.e., military service discrimination); use of sexual-orientation-based epithets by government officials (see criticism of Barney Frank and the now-discredited belief that gay government employees posed security risks); previous criminalization of gay behavior; and horrific hate crimes committed against gay persons, including but not limited to Matthew Shepard.
There may be a more unorthodox way for the United States Supreme Court to decide these issues. The U.S. Supreme Court could rely on existing case law, which establishes that all persons have a Constitutional right to privacy. Following that principle, the government has no business invading the privacy of persons who wish to marry. Thus, to the extent that any law requires the government to extend a right based on analyzing an individual's sexual relations, then the government is violating an individual's privacy rights. Therefore, if the government chooses to be involved in granting rights based on marriage, it must extend such rights without regard to sexual behavior--which includes sexual orientation.
If I was a betting man, I'd bet that the Supreme Court would prefer to rely on privacy rights to render a decision rather than creating a new protected class. I don't think the Supreme Court would use my exact logic above, but it's important to note that Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, was the writer of the Lawrence v. Texas (2003) opinion. Here is the opening paragraph of that opinion:
Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions. [Emphasis added.]
I am hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide these issues correctly. But insofar as the California Supreme Court is concerned, it made a legally-defensible decision within the boundaries of its limited jurisdiction.
Update 2: here are some comments I posted on Facebook on this issue:
Do you believe people can invent any term to define a relationship and then force that definition on others? If so, then at what point may a Court step in and say that a particular relationship is invalid and undeserving of tax breaks, the ability to adopt, the ability to inherit money, etc.? The Court's answer is that it must step in when discrimination against "substantive" rights occurs between opposite-sex unions and same-sex unions. Here, in California, the substantive rights--all the ones I just mentioned above--of gay persons are the exact same as non-gay persons because of the state's option of civil unions. The Court had to draw the line somewhere and seems to have chosen a legally-defensible place to draw it by choosing substance over form...
All the court did was rule that the majority of the people can choose to call a particular relationship a "marriage," as long as the state doesn't create "substantive" differences in rights between marriages and civil unions. Thus, as long as "civil unions" confer the same substantive rights as "marriages," people can choose to call one of them a "marriage." In time, most scholars will see the decision as pro-gay rights, b/c the Court strives to ensure that "substantive" rights are protected for all persons, including gay persons...
I agree it would be "separate but equal," except that the Court did not deal with any ongoing government services like schools, water access, or transportation. The Court talked about one word, "marriage." It did not deny anyone's right to have a ceremony, to love a particular person, or to raise kids with that person. The Court saw the issue as pure semantics, i.e., you say tomato (marriage), we say tomatoe (civil unions).
It's also a huge leap--and almost insulting to the Civil Rights movement--to compare Jim Crow's lynchings, police dogs, and separate schools to the current status of gay life in California. I am being very deliberate when I say "California," and not "Wyoming," "Mississippi," or "Maine." It makes me sad to say this, but perhaps the Court and California voters need to see more Matthew Shepards and Charles Howards before they see the denial of gay marriage as a moral issue deserving of legal redress rather than a purely semantic issue.