By Mike Stetzer
In the past year, the laws governing marriage and divorce in the United States have come under scrutiny, as same-sex couples in various states challenge legal restrictions on both. Late last year, a Rhode Island court denied the divorce of a same-sex couple originally granted marriage in Massachusetts.
In New Hampshire and Oregon, legislation was introduced to allow civil unions between same-sex couples; elsewhere in the country, voters are gathering signatures on petitions that would amend their states' Constitutions to forbid marriage (and therefore divorce) between gay and lesbian couples.
But the most momentous ruling by far has been the California Supreme Court's recent decision overturning the state's ban on same-sex marriage. According to the Associated Press, California's domestic partnership laws - which provided same-sex couples with only some of the rights of marriage - were discriminatory, and must be changed.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Ronald George reportedly noted that the "state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship...does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation." Sources indicate that he also cited raising children as one of the rights that needs to be afforded to all Californians.
The legalization of gay marriage is important not only to civil rights activists and same-sex couples but also to the children of these couples. When same-sex relationships end, couples don't have the option of divorce in most states. Because their unions aren't recognized by the majority of the country, they aren't eligible for the protections divorce offers.
This means that issues of child support and child custody can get sticky, as was demonstrated in the case of two Virginia women who, upon ending their Massachusetts marriage, had difficulty working out the custody of their two children in Virginia courts.
Some experts caution, too, that California's new legislation could be short-lived. Apparently, conservative activists are gathering signatures on a petition that would add a Constitutional ban of same-sex marriages to the state's ballot in November. In the past, California voters have been less enthusiastic about same-sex marriages than the Supreme Court.
Still, sources suggest that the ruling could be groundbreaking, largely because of California's size (38 million of 302 million Americans live there) and its history of handing down landmark decisions.
Currently, 26 states have Constitutional amendments that prohibit same-sex marriages; three (California, New Jersey and Vermont) have laws offering many of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples and only one (Massachusetts) permits full-fledged marriage between same-sex couples.
Whether or not the decision from California's Supreme Court endures, the expansion of the rights of gay and lesbian citizens marks a high point in a legal battle that began in 2000, when California voters showed their support of a bill that restricted marriage to only one man and one woman.
For updates on the marriage and divorce laws in California and around the country, visit Total Divorce and our divorce legislation page.