SAN FRANCISCO - California's Supreme Court declared gay couples in the nation's biggest state can marry - a monumental but perhaps short-lived victory for the gay rights movement that was greeted yesterday with tears, hugs, kisses and at least one instant proposal of matrimony.

Same-sex couples could tie the knot in as little as a month. But the window could close soon after - religious and social conservatives are pressing to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would undo the Supreme Court ruling and ban gay marriage.

"Essentially, this boils down to love. We love each other. We now have equal rights under the law," declared a jubilant Robin Tyler, a plaintiff in the case along with her partner. She added: "We're going to get married. No Tupperware, please."

People raised their fists in triumph inside City Hall, and people wrapped themselves in the rainbow-colored gay-pride flag outside the courthouse. In the Castro, the historic center of the gay community in San Francisco, Tim Oviatt wept as he watched the news on TV.

"I've been waiting for this all my life. This is a life-affirming moment," he said.

By the afternoon, gay and lesbian couples had already started lining up at San Francisco City Hall to make appointments to get marriage licenses. In West Hollywood, supporters were planning to serve "wedding cake" at an evening celebration.

James Dobson, chairman of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, called the ruling an "outrage."

"It will be up to the people of California to preserve traditional marriage by passing a constitutional amendment. . . . Only then can they protect themselves from this latest example of judicial tyranny," he said in an e-mail statement.

In its 4-3 ruling, the Republican-dominated high court struck down state laws against same-sex marriage and said domestic partnerships that provide many of the rights and benefits of matrimony are not enough.

"In contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority.

Massachusetts is the only other state to legalize gay marriage, something it did in 2004. The California ruling is considered monumental by virtue of the state's size - 38 million out of a U.S. population of 302 million - and its historic role in the vanguard of the many social and cultural changes that have swept the country since World War II.

California has an estimated 92,000 same-sex couples. *