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Groundbreaking gay marriage trial starts in California

SCV lawmakers say overturning Proposition 8 would go against voters

Posted: January 11, 2010 11:58 a.m.
Updated: January 12, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Demonstrators for and against same-sex marriage protest during a rally in front of a federal courthouse in San Francisco on Monday.

 

The first federal trial to determine if the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from outlawing same-sex marriage got under way Monday, with a judge peppering both sides with questions during their opening statements.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, it's likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it ultimately could become a landmark that determines if gay Americans have the right to marry.

Only five states allow same-sex marriage. Conservative politicians representing the Santa Clarita Valley railed against the idea of California being the sixth. They said the lawsuit - aimed at overturning Proposition 8, California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage - goes against tradition and the will of the voters.

In Monday's trial, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who is hearing the case, repeatedly interjected as lawyers for both sides presented opening statements.

Among other things, Walker asked how Proposition 8 could be discriminatory since California already allows domestic partnerships that carry the same rights and benefits of marriage.

"If California would simply get out of the marriage business and classify everyone as a domestic partnership, would that solve the problem?" the judge asked.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represent two same-sex couples who filed the suit, answered that he did not think such a move would be politically feasible.

"I suspect the people of California would not want to abandon the relationship that the proponents of Proposition 8 spent a tremendous amount of resources describing as important to people, and so important it must be reserved for opposite-sex couples," he said.

Olson quoted the U.S. Supreme Court's own lofty description of matrimony to demonstrate what his clients were being denied.

"In the words of the highest court in the land, marriage is the most important relationship in life and of fundamental importance to all individuals," Olson told a courtroom packed with witnesses, reporters and members of the public.

The case is the first federal trial on the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage. Walker is hearing it without a jury.

Attorney Charles Cooper, who is representing Proposition 8 sponsors, said it's too difficult to know the impact of gay marriage on traditional marriage because the practice is still so new.

Only five states have opened the institution to same-sex couples, and three of them had them imposed on them by judges, he said.

"While the people of California have been steadfast in their defense of marriage, they have also been generous in their extending of the rights and benefits and protections of marriage to the gay and lesbian population," Cooper said.

He also noted that President Barack Obama doesn't support legalizing gay marriage, a remark that prompted Judge Walker to note that Obama's own parents would not have been allowed to get married in some states before the Supreme Court overturned state bans on interracial marriage in 1967.

"That indicates there is quite a change in individuals' entitlement to enter the institution" of marriage, Walker said.

About 100 people demonstrated Monday outside the federal courthouse. Most were gay marriage supporters who took turns addressing the crowd with a microphone. About a dozen gay marriage foes stood in the back of the gathering and quietly held signs demanding the ban remain in place.

State Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, has supported Proposition 8. He said while he supports gay rights, it would be inappropriate to allow same-sex couples to get married because marriage is traditionally between a man and a woman.

Runner, who represents parts of the Santa Clarita Valley, said he hopes the courts uphold the will of the people.

"When you remove the barrier between a man and a woman that is such a traditional, cultural and moral event for us, where's the next line that you draw?" Runner said. "The line becomes arbitrary."

State Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, said he would side with the voters.

"Aside from my personal beliefs that marriage should be between a man and a woman, the voters spoke," Smyth said. "The proponents of Proposition 8 took great care that it passed constitutional muster and I think the courts will confirm that."

Two hours before the trial was scheduled to start, the Supreme Court blocked video of the proceedings from being posted on YouTube.com. It said justices need more time to review that issue and put the order in place at least until Wednesday.

Over the weekend, Proposition 8's sponsors sought to block YouTube broadcasts after Walker approved the plan last week, saying the case was appropriate for wide dissemination because it dealt with an issue of wide interest and importance.

Rick Jacobs, chairman of the Courage Campaign, a Los Angeles-based gay rights organization, said supporters of same-sex marriage were disappointed with the decision to bar cameras and called on the high court to lift its ban Wednesday.

"It's time that the debate about marriage equality is seen for what it is - a debate over the rights of our friends and families to live their lives freely," he said.

At trial, Walker intends to ask lawyers to present the facts underlying much of the political rhetoric surrounding same-sex marriage. Among his questions are whether sexual orientation can be changed and the effect on children of being raised by two mothers or two fathers.

Witnesses for Proposition 8 backers will testify that governments historically have sanctioned traditional marriage as a way to promote responsible child-rearing, and that this remains a valid justification for limiting marriage to a man and a woman.

Others expected to testify are academic experts from the fields of political science, history, psychology and economics, and the two plaintiff couples - Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, who live in Berkeley, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, who live in Los Angeles.

Signal Staff Writer Jonathan Randles contributed to this report.

 

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