Openly gay state Assemblyman Mark Leno believes this week’s court ruling on same-sex marriage finally puts equal rights for gays and lesbians within reach — though the great battle lies ahead.

In December, the San Francisco Democrat introduced AB 19, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which seeks to open up civil marriage to gay Californians by a vote of the legislature and the signature of the governor.

Leno sees Judge Richard Kramer’s ruling this week, which would make his legislation unnecessary, as a “great assistance” in swaying his undecided or timid colleagues. The state Supreme Court could issue a decision on Judge Kramer’s ruling in a year to 18 months if it decides to hear the case.

All of this helps gays and lesbians in? the fight that Leno sees as inevitable: a ballot initiative for a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

“I have always believed that our adversaries would attempt to bring this to the ballot in June 2006,” Leno said. “Nothing, in my mind, could discourage them.”

The problem, of course, is that a constitutional amendment would trump any decision by the state Supreme Court. It would set the stage for a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the experience of the 11 states that overwhelmingly approved such amendments in November 2004 is a guide, Leno should be very afraid that gay and lesbian couples might lose not only the marriage fight but also their hard-fought domestic partnership program, which provides everything from child custody protection to inheritance rights.

But Leno thinks one of his aces, besides a split electorate on the subject of marriage and a close-to-two-thirds support for equal rights under the law for same-sex couples, is Governer Arnold Schwarzenegger. He sees the Governator as supporting the cause, whether same-sex marriage comes legislatively or through the courts.

“It’s my belief in either case we would go to the voters with the governor on our side,” he said. “I think he’s very open-minded about this,” Leno said. “He talked about how people’s minds are changing on the subject. I found that all to be very encouraging.”

Same-sex marriage opponents have been quick to point to the 2000 Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed by California voters by more than 60 percent. Eddie Gutierrez, the communications director for the statewide advocacy organization Equality California, said his group is already gearing up for another round with the anti-marriage contingent.

“We are preparing in counties across California to make sure there is public education on the ground,” he said. “We are stronger than ever.”

The fight is sure to be bruising and expensive, but marriage-equality proponents say there is already a tradition of partner recognition in the state, and the 2000 referendum had more to do with recognizing marriages from outside California than denying rights to Golden State residents. But you can also bet social conservatives will throw up everything they have to pass an amendment, from religious piety to race baiting to mischaracterizations of homosexuality.

Jenny Pizer, senior counsel for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender rights organization Lambda Legal, said she understands what marriage-equality proponents have to do to bring marriage to same-sex couples in California.

“If conservative groups go that route,” she said, “that means there will need to be millions of conversations up and down the state about why discrimination is wrong.”

LA Weekly