SAN FRANCISCO -- With their same-sex marriages taken away by the California Supreme Court, many gay and lesbian couples were left wondering yesterday what will happen to the benefits they briefly received, such as family insurance discounts and medical coverage.
The court ruling was made as many gay newlyweds were in the process of asserting legal rights to benefits only married couples enjoy. It means that the 3,995 same-sex marriages sanctioned by the city of San Francisco were never valid under the law.
''I was planning on going to court and saying 'I am married' and now I can't say 'I'm married,' " Margot McShane said. ''The court's decision, it gave me a feeling like you were kicked in the stomach."
McShane says she worries that the court's decision will make it difficult, if not impossible, to be recognized as a legal parent of the twins that her partner gave birth to last month.
McShane and Alexandra D'Amario, of Napa, were the fourth lesbian couple to get married in San Francisco, but the children's birth certificates have spots only for ''mother" and ''father." The pair had planned to go to court, marriage license in hand, demanding that McShane be legally recognized as having the same parental benefits as D'Amario.
The couple may still have a case, said John Mayoue, who wrote ''Balancing Competing Interests in Family Law," published by the American Bar Association last year.
''I think it's going to create more litigation," he said of the Supreme Court's decision. ''Someone has the right to say, 'I had a license issued by a municipality, by San Francisco, and I believe I had a constitutional right.' "
California's justices ruled narrowly on the limits of a mayor's authority to interpret state law and did not resolve whether the state constitution would permit same-sex marriage, as Massachusetts' highest court found.
Gay marriage opponents say the gay weddings violate both state law and a voter referendum barring same-sex marriages. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and gay and lesbian couples point to the higher authority of the state Constitution, which prohibits discrimination.
The resolution of these challenges will have to wait until a series of lawsuits over the San Francisco weddings, consolidated into one case, reach California's top court.
The justices voted, 5-2, to invalidate the marriages in the meantime, to avoid a legal quagmire.
''Withholding or delaying a ruling on the current validity of the existing same-sex marriages might lead numerous persons to make fundamental changes in their lives or otherwise proceed on the basis of erroneous expectations," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote.
Two justices dissented, saying the decision to void the marriages should have been put on hold pending a decision on the constitutional question.
Valid marriages not only ensure parental rights but also are key to a wide variety of financial benefits, affecting taxes, inheritance, insurance, Social Security, and retirement.
And while neither the federal government nor California recognized the marriages in the six months before they were nullified, a host of lawsuits were filed asserting their legitimacy.
Some of the gays and lesbians who joyfully got married under the ornate dome of San Francisco's City Hall quickly applied for marriage benefits.
Others were more cautious.
''I think many of the married were waiting for the court's decision to see if they were still married before they sought benefits, and if they were denied, they may have gone to court," said Larry Levine, a professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.