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Supreme Court begins gay marriage case arguments

Gay marriage supporters hold signs outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Gay marriage supporters hold signs outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

TIMELINE

1969

  • The modern gay liberation movement unofficially kicks off with the Stonewall Riots, demonstrations by gays in response to a police raid in New York City.

1972

  • The U.S. Supreme Court lets stand a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that the law does not allow for same-sex marriage, and that the issue is different from interracial marriage.

1973

  • Maryland becomes the first state to pass a statute banning gay marriage, according to Freedom to Marry.

1977

  • Harvey Milk becomes first openly gay elected official in San Francisco, wins seat on Board of Supervisors. He later appeals to gays to come out and run for office, "for invisible, we remain in limbo." Milk was shot and killed in 1978.

1986

  • U.S. Supreme Court says "we are quite unwilling" to find a fundamental right to sodomy, even in the privacy of one's home, in Bowers v. Hardwick.

1996

  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, often called the swing vote on the court, writes opinion striking down Colorado ban on protections for gays, saying the ban "seems inexplicable by anything but animus."
  • President Bill Clinton signs Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes.

1997

  • Comedian Ellen DeGeneres reveals she is gay. Shortly afterward her sitcom character says "I'm gay" - inadvertently speaking into an airport public address system.

1998

  • Debut of television show "Will and Grace", about a gay man and his best friend, a straight woman.

2000

  • Vermont becomes the first state to allow civil unions for same-sex couples.
  • Republican Vice Presidential candidate Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, indicates he supports gay marriage, saying "freedom means freedom for everybody" and that "people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. He said states should regulate the matter, not the federal government.

2003

  • Supreme Court, in another decision written by Kennedy, strikes down Texas anti-sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas and reverses the 1986 Bowers ruling. Kennedy writes that this doesn't mean the government must recognize gay relationships. "Do not believe it," Justice Antonin Scalia dissents, saying the logic of the opinion points to allowing same-sex marriage.
  • The Massachusetts Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, and gay weddings begin in 2004.

2004

  • San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directs county to allowing same-sex marriages, arguing the state's voter-approved ban on gay marriage, Prop 22, was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court stops the weddings on grounds unrelated to the constitutionality of marriage.

2005

  • Canada allows gay marriage.

2008

  • California gay marriages become legal when the California Supreme Court strikes down the Prop 22 ban. That November voters add a ban to the state constitution - Prop 8 - ending a summer of gay marriage.

2009

  • Iowa State Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage. It is still the only Midwest state that allows gay marriage.
  • Federal court challenge to Prop 8 filed, days before California Supreme Court lets Prop 8 stand as a valid change to the state constitution. Eventually, federal district and appeals courts agree to strike down the ban, which is now before U.S. Supreme Court.

2011

  • President Barack Obama's administration ends "don't ask don't tell policy," allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

2012

  • North Carolina approves a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in May. In November, Maine, Maryland and Washington become the first states where voters approve same-sex marriage, and Minnesota rejects a new ban.
  • President Barack Obama endorses same-sex marriage.

2013

  • Boy Scouts of America plan to vote in May whether to repeal the group's ban on openly gay members.
  • U.S. Supreme Court on March 26 and 27 hears oral arguments on the constitutionality of California's Prop 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. At this point nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage and 38 states prohibit it, according to Freedom To Marry.

WASHINGTON - Supreme Court justices signaled a reluctance on Tuesday to rule broadly on the fundamental right to marriage for gays and lesbians, suggesting a potentially anti-climactic outcome in the first of two related cases before the high court.

As sign-waving demonstrators massed outside, the court completed an hour and 20 minutes of oral argument on whether to let stand a California ban on same-sex marriage, without indicating a clear path forward by the end of the session.

It was the first of two days of argument. On Wednesday, the court will consider the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal benefits to married same-sex couples. Rulings in both cases are expected by the end of June.

The narrower DOMA case does not give the court the same opportunity to issue a broad ruling because the case relates only to a federal law that limits the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples for the purposes of federal benefits.

Only the California Proposition 8 case gave the court the option of finding a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. Polls show growing support among Americans for gay marriage.

But during the argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is considered a swing vote, raised concerns about the court entering "uncharted waters" on an issue that divides the states.

Kennedy even raised the prospect of the court dismissing the case, a relatively unusual move that would leave intact a federal appeals court ruling that had earlier struck down the California law, known as Proposition 8.

In a similar vein, Justice Samuel Alito also urged caution, noting that gay marriage, as a concept, is "newer than cellphones and the Internet."

None of the justices indicated support for the Obama administration's favored solution, which would strike down Proposition 8 and require the eight states that already recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships to allow gays and lesbians to marry.

COMPETING RALLIES

Outside the court, hundreds of demonstrators from both sides gathered. Anti-gay marriage protesters marched past the imposing Supreme Court building accompanied by police on motorcycles, drawing jeers and shouts from a pro-gay marriage rally, but there were no physical confrontations.

"No hate - we just disagree!" yelled one marcher, holding a sign that proclaimed children do best with a mother and father.

Jay Golon, a New York City educator who was at the pro-gay marriage rally, said he has many students with same-sex parents. "It's a family," he said. "That's all."

Several hundred people rallied against same-sex marriage on the National Mall, carrying such signs as "Kids Do Best With a Mom and Dad" and "Same-sex Marriage is Not Marriage."

Inside the hushed courtroom, filled to capacity with lawyers and spectators, some of whom had waited for days to get a seat, the justices probed lawyers on both sides on the technical issue of whether California opponents of gay marriage even had a right to be heard in federal court.

Although there was no apparent consensus on that point, if the court were to find the proponents did not have standing it would not reach the merits and then the federal district court ruling that struck down Proposition 8 would be left intact.

U.S. citizens in general do not have a right to sue to enforce laws they favor. Chief Justice John Roberts pressed lawyer Charles Cooper, who represents gay marriage opponents, on why his clients are any different as they seek to enforce Proposition 8.

"I don't think we've ever allowed anything like that," Roberts said.

DEFINITION OF MARRIAGE

On the broader question of same-sex marriage, pressed by attorney Theodore Olson on behalf of two California same-sex couples, some conservative justices raised concerns about a lack of scientific data on same-sex couples raising children.

Justice Antonin Scalia said there is "considerable disagreement" about whether gays and lesbians should be able to raise children.

Kennedy agreed that there is "substance to the point that sociological information is new."

On the liberal wing, justices probed Cooper on his assertion that the government's interest in promoting procreation is a primary reason for limiting the definition of marriage.

Cooper said that expanding marriage "could well lead, over time, to harms" to the institution of marriage.

Both Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Stephen Breyer questioned Cooper on how his definition of marriage squares with the fact that infertile opposite-sex couples can marry.

"There are lots of people who get married who can't have children," Breyer said.

Prior to expressing his doubts about whether the court should decide the case, Kennedy pressed Cooper on the "imminent legal injury" facing almost 40,000 California children being raised by gay and lesbian couples. "They want their parents to have full recognition and full status," he said.