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Will California's gay marriage bill spur similar measures elsewhere?

California Lawmakers approve same-sex marriage, but the governor promises a veto.

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The latest struggle over who decides the legality of gay marriage - citizens, lawmakers, or the courts - played out in the nation's most populous state last week. The California legislature was the first to approve a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto it.

The political stand-off raises legal issues specific to California, state and national observers say. The legislature's attempt to broaden the definition of marriage is in direct conflict with a citizens' initiative passed in 2000 defining legal marriage as between a man and woman only. That citizen's initiative itself, Proposition 22, is also being challenged in court.

But the recent move by Sacramento legislators emphasizes what some observers see as a shift in public opinion that appears to be more accepting of gay marriage. Still, others anticipate the bill could add to the backlash against the gay-marriage movement that prompted 11 states to ban same-sex marriage through ballot initiatives last year. Indeed, California conservative groups have heightened efforts to place an initiative before voters that would recognize heterosexual unions only.

National pollsters report more acceptance of gays and lesbians in a variety of other contexts. What happens in California could set the tone for how other states deal with the issue legislatively.

"There will be lurches backward and forward as some states throw up roadblocks to such arrangements and others embrace them," says Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at University of Southern California who tracks state initiatives. "But overall the support for civil unions is getting stronger and stronger."

A recent statewide poll here shows that voters are evenly split (about 46 percent for, and 46 against) same-sex marriage. Five years ago, 61 percent of voters backed the initiative that defined marriage as between a man and woman. "Moves by the California legislature are part of the national trend toward greater equality for same-sex couples that has been growing coast to coast for the past few years," says Ms. Garrett.

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