SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Wednesday he will veto a bill to allow gay marriage in the state and said the issue should be decided by the courts or by voters directly but not by the Democrat-controlled legislature.
A veto had been widely expected after California's Assembly on Tuesday endorsed gay marriage, the first time a state legislature had taken such a step. California's Senate passed the bill last week.
Schwarzenegger's press secretary, Margita Thompson, said the governor "believes that gay couples are entitled to full protection under the law and should not be discriminated against based upon their relationship."
But since California voters approved a ballot measure five years ago defining marriage as between a man and a woman, the question of gay marriage should be put to voters again in a referendum or decided by courts, she said.
"We cannot have a system where the people vote and the legislature derails that vote," Thompson said.
Gay marriage is under review in California courts following San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision in 2004 to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples -- a move that set off a national debate.
California's Supreme Court has invalidated the San Francisco licenses, but left the wider issue of whether the ban on gay marriage is constitutional to lower courts.
Democrats admit the gay marriage bill was largely a symbolic gesture and had said they did not expect support from Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican grappling with declining voter support.
"It certainly seems like he wants the courts to make the decision for him, but we truly feel like we did the right thing," said Richard Stapler, an aide to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.
Republican media consultant Wayne Johnson said it was inconceivable Schwarzenegger would have signed the bill because his approval ratings have slumped, leaving him with only Republican support. "The people who are his strongest supporters are among the least likely to support this bill," said Johnson.
Schwarzenegger faces an uphill struggle to convince voters to back ballot measures in an unpopular special November election he has called.
A Field Poll released on Wednesday found 56 percent of California voters are not inclined to support Schwarzenegger if he seeks re-election.
But voters hold the state legislature in even lower regard, one analyst said, allowing Schwarzenegger the opportunity to cast his veto of the gay marriage bill as a defense of existing state law.
"He can wrap himself in the rule of law and say, 'The people have spoken,"' said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which tracks state political races. "This is probably one issue in which Schwarzenegger is probably a winner at a time when he has very few issues going his way."