SACRAMENTO -- An effort that would have legalized same-sex marriage in California fell short in the state Assembly early yesterday after a small group of moderate Democrats rebuffed the measure.
Despite intense lobbying, a dozen Democrats refused to support a bill by Assemblyman Mark Leno, Democrat of San Francisco, that would have allowed tens of thousands of same-sex partners to marry, gaining expanded rights to healthcare, Social Security, and military benefits.
While the measure won backing from 35 Democrats, Leno could not persuade another six lawmakers to give the bill the 41 votes it needed to pass. The defeat, just after midnight, marked the second time in two years that Leno has fallen short on the issue. He vowed to try again soon.
In often-emotional speeches, Democrats and Republicans presented diametrically opposing views, with supporters casting the proposal as a historic stand against discrimination and opponents denouncing it as an antidemocratic attack on moral values.
Leno and his supporters presented the bill as something fundamental: a statement by the state Legislature that discrimination against same-sex couples will not be tolerated in California.
''Unless you are willing to look me in the face and say that I am not a human being just as you are, you have no right to deny me the access to marriage in this state or anywhere else," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, Democrat of Los Angeles, one of two lesbians in the Legislature. She has been with her female partner for 26 years.
But Republicans accused gay-rights advocates of trying to circumvent California voters who approved Proposition 22, a 2000 ballot measure that barred the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states.
Those who disagree with the 61 percent of voters who endorsed Proposition 22 should take their case back to the ballot, said Assemblyman Jay La Suer, a La Mesa Republican who said the bill ''has nothing to do with discrimination" and ''everything to do with the destruction of the moral fiber of this nation."
Assemblyman Dennis L. Mountjoy, Republican of Monrovia, echoed the sentiment of many Republicans when he suggested that the measure was about more than expanding marriage rights for same-sex couples.
''What the homosexuals in the state of California and in the United States want is not rights, they want acceptance," Mountjoy said. ''They want my children to be told that homosexuality is OK, that it is natural. I'm here to tell you that it is not OK, and it is not natural, and I will not have my children taught that."
The bill's fate ultimately came down to a small group of moderate Democrats who were torn between often-competing personal and political views. Five Democrats joined 32 Republicans in opposing the bill, and seven others declined to take a stand.
In an effort to win support from the seven undecided Democrats, Leno enlisted the help of Arzu and Ramona Gatto, a lesbian couple from San Carlos who, along with their 17-year-old daughter, Marian, lobbied undecided lawmakers outside the Assembly chambers.
One was Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, a Newark Democrat, who was torn between his work as a civil rights lawyer and his personal religious beliefs as a born-again Christian.
''I'm going against part of me that's been a civil rights champion all my life," said Torrico, who did not vote on the bill. ''But it's all about what I think God wants for us, and I can't get around that."
Same-sex marriage has emerged as one of the most politically charged issues of this generation, one that has generated protests, protracted court battles, and ballot fights from Oregon to Kentucky.
President Bush has seized on the issue by calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. The controversy helped galvanize evangelical Christian voters who turned out in force in November to help reelect the Republican president.
After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court cleared the way for same-sex marriages, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco bucked California law last year and began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The more than 4,000 marriages held at San Francisco City Hall were eventually struck down by the California Supreme Court, which unanimously agreed that the city had gone too far.
But earlier this spring, in a landmark ruling, a San Francisco Superior Court judge concluded that California's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
The issue is likely to end up in the California Supreme Court.