Hours after a federal judge declared California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional on Wednesday, Phil Ting, San Francisco’s assessor-recorder, stood on the steps of City Hall and addressed a cheering crowd.
“Are you ready to get married?” Mr. Ting yelled.
“Yeah!” responded the crowd of hundreds of supporters of same-sex marriage.
“I am the person who signs all of your marriage licenses, and we are getting ready for all of you,” Mr. Ting replied.
The recent history of same-sex marriage in California has been marked by small windows of opportunity when it was legal for gay and lesbian couples to wed. Gay rights advocates hope that Wednesday’s ruling by Judge Vaughn R. Walker, chief judge of the Federal District Court in San Francisco, opens another window.
Whether it does, remains unclear. As Bay Area municipalities made hurried preparations Thursday for a possible rush of same-sex couples hoping to marry, supporters of Proposition 8, which created the ban, were seeking to maintain a temporary stay that Judge Walker had issued in conjunction with his ruling.
The stay prevents same-sex couples from marrying while the case is being appealed, but legal analysts said it was unlikely that Judge Walker — who ruled that Proposition 8 violated the constitutional rights of gay men and lesbians — would extend it much beyond Friday, the deadline he set for both sides to file briefs on whether he should continue the ban.
If the stay is lifted, officials in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties said, same-sex couples would have an opportunity to marry unless the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stepped in.
“We’re working very closely with the county clerk’s office to make sure that everybody who wants to get married Friday, if the stay is removed, can do so,” Mr. Ting said Thursday in an interview.
Steve Weir, the clerk-recorder for Contra Costa County, said his office had been contacting volunteers who help with high-volume wedding days like Valentine’s Day in preparation for the stay’s being lifted.
“All that clerks in the state are waiting for is someone to say ‘go’,” Mr. Weir said.
In 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco married 4,000 gay couples at City Hall in defiance of a state prohibition. The marriages were later annulled by the California Supreme Court, which ruled that Mr. Newsom had overstepped his authority.
Another opportunity arose in May 2008, when the State Supreme Court overturned California’s ban on same-sex marriages. About 18,000 couples were married before Proposition 8 was passed by 52 percent of the vote that November.
“A window is a window of opportunity,” said Bruce Ivie, 53, who has married David Bowers, 63, twice. Their first wedding was on Feb. 12, 2004, but was part of the mass annulment. Their second, on June 17, 2008, is still legal.
Mr. Ivie said he was hopeful that if other same-sex couples were able to marry while the Proposition 8 case continued to be adjudicated, the validity of those marriages would also be upheld, regardless of an ultimate ruling.
“If there is some window, whether it’s a day or up to two years, they cannot take those marriages away, any more than they could find a way to take away ours,” Mr. Ivie said.
Jim Campbell, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which defended Proposition 8, said that if a stay was not issued, “uncertainty” from any same-sex marriages would be “harmful to the public interest” while the case was under appeal. That could include the administrative burden if government officials had to annul marriages, he said.
Ted Boutrous, a lawyer for the plaintiffs challenging Proposition 8, responded: “No one is harmed by people getting married. Our clients are hurt every day that Prop 8 is in effect and their constitutional rights are violated.”
Margaret Russell, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said it was not a close call.
“If you balance administrative burden versus the violation of constitutional rights,” Professor Russell said, “the balance of harms is clearly in favor of not having a stay.”
Rory Little, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said a stay was normally granted at some point when a state statute was overturned. But Professor Little noted that the judges at the Ninth Circuit who would make the call were not conservative.
“If Walker were to deny the stay, it’s not automatic that they would reverse,” he said.
Professor Little said he didn’t think that an unexpected window would open before a final decision was made.
“I don’t think the courts are going to do this in a disorderly way where there’s a three-hour window,” he said.
If a stay is granted, couples could have to wait until next summer when the case could finally reach the United States Supreme Court. Until then, same-sex marriage in California remains symbolic.
After Judge Walker’s ruling, Vanessa Judicpa and her partner, Maria Ydil, marched with a cheering throng from the federal courthouse to nearby City Hall, hoping to marry. They were thwarted by Judge Walker’s temporary stay.
Ms. Ydil and Ms. Judicpa, both of San Francisco, were undeterred. They climbed the City Hall steps, where they whispered vows in a marriage ceremony without legal standing. The Rev. Roland Stringfellow of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations donned a rainbow-colored stole as he blessed their union.