Groundbreaking gay marriage trial starts in US


Published: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 10:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 10:25 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — The first federal trial to determine if the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from outlawing same-sex marriage gets under way Monday, and the two gay couples on whose behalf the case was brought will be among the first witnesses.

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In this photo from July 2, 2009, Jeff Farrillo, left top, Paul Katami, Kristin Perry, left bottom, and Sandra Stier are shown at a news conference at the Federal Building in San Francisco.

Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press

The proceedings, which are expected to last two to three weeks, involve a challenge to Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban approved by California voters in November 2008.

Regardless of the outcome, the case is 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.

The judge who will render a decision, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker, has asked lawyers arguing for and against the ban to present the facts underlying much of the political rhetoric surrounding same-sex marriage. Among the questions Walker plans to entertain are whether sexual orientation can be changed, how legalizing gay marriage affects traditional marriages and the effect on children of being raised by two mothers or two fathers.

"The case is intriguing, exciting and potentially very significant because it addresses multiple important questions that, surprisingly to many, remain open in federal law," said Jennifer Pizer, marriage director for the gay law advocacy group Lambda Legal. "Can the state reserve the esteemed language and status of marriage just for heterosexual couples, and relegate same-sex couples to a lesser status? Are there any adequate public interests to justify reimposing such a caste system for gay people, especially by a majority vote to take a cherished right from a historically mistreated minority?"

The sponsors of Proposition 8, which passed with 52 percent of the vote, won permission to defend the law in court after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to. The attorney general and the governor are defendants in the case because of their positions in state government.

Lawyers for the measure's backers plan to argue that because same-sex marriage still is a social experiment, it is wise for states like California to take a wait-and-see approach. Their witnesses 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.

Gay marriage is legal in only a handful of U.S. states, though many other states recognize civil unions between same-sex couples that provide some but not all of the benefits of marriage.

While other U.S. courts have wrestled with the constitutional issues raised by prohibiting same-sex marriages — the Supreme Court last took a look at the issue 38 years ago — Walker's court is the first to employ live witnesses in the task.

Among those set to testify are the leaders of the Proposition 8 campaign, academic experts from the fields of political science, history, psychology and economics, and the two plaintiff couples.

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