Gay marriage debate argued in SF court

March 4, 2008 9:19:09 PM PST
It's been four years since San Francisco officials initiated the marriage debate in California and now the fate of same sex marriage is in the hands of the state's highest court.

Justices on the high court clearly came prepared for Tuesday's showdown between same sex marriage advocates and their opponents. At issue -- what's in a word -- just who should allowed to be married in California.

Both sides agree that marriage is a special, sacred institution with both tangible rights and benefits and symbolic meaning and status, but that's where the agreement ends. So now the state Supreme Court has stepped in.

This was what lawyers call a hot bench. Justices on the state's highest court were informed, engaged, and full of questions as they examined the constitutionality of California's ban on gay marriage.

"Would you object if the state said marriage is really a religious institution, we are sanctioning civil unions?" asked one justice.

"Why isn't prohibiting marriage between same sex couples sex discrimination?" asked another justice.

Attorneys representing the city of San Francisco and same sex couples argued that the state's domestic partnership law is a poor substitute for marriage.

"Why isn't the Domestic Partnership Act basically a co-equal in providing the substantive rights that you are seeking in marriage?" asked Carlos Moreno, a California Supreme Court justice.

"It's not equal, your honor, and the fact that it may be well intended and that it may make progress is certainly something that gay men and lesbians are appreciative of, but just because there is partial progress towards equality doesn't mean that something is full equality," said an attorney.

Attorneys for the state and conservative religious groups focused their arguments on Proposition 22, passed by 4.6 million California voters eight years ago.

"The people decided that public policy does not require same sex marriage. Public policy requires that marriage remain the institution of a man and a woman."

"Does this leave this court with no role to play?" asked one justrice.

The courtroom was packed for this historic hearing and an overflow crowd filled an adjacent auditorium. Outside demonstrators on both sides gathered, giving the procedure a theater-like atmosphere, but for the couples who are plaintiffs in the case, this is real life drama.

"I felt that everything that we would want to express was expressed today and I didn't feel unsatisfied at all and I thought, 'they've heard it all now, they really have.' I have great hopefulness and trust in it," said plaintiff Jeanne Rizzo.

The justices have to rule within 90 days. Neither side appeared to be willing to try to guess how the justices might be leaning. It did appear to be a deeply divided court.

ABC7 talked to legal analyst Dean Johnson who says it's going to be pretty close. He's predicting a pro-same sex marriage decision.