Landmark Gay Marriage Trial Opens In California

In San Francisco, a federal court trial on Proposition 8 — California's ban on gay marriage — begins. Voters approved the measure in November 2008, but gay rights groups say Proposition 8 is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. It's the nation's first trial in any court on same-sex marriage and is expected to run two to three weeks. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Richard Gonzales.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In San Francisco today, the issue of same sex marriage began a journey that is likely to end at the Supreme Court. For the first time a federal court is examining whether states have the right to ban same sex marriage. The trial looks at Proposition 8, California's voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

NPR's Richard Gonzales has been covering today's events. He joins us now. And, first, Richard, there were some pretrial drama today. We've been reporting that the Supreme Court stopped an effort to put the proceedings on YouTube. Tell us about that.

RICHARD GONZALES: Well, we start with Judge Vaughn Walker. He's a libertarian leaning judge who was appointed by the first President Bush. He wanted to be the first to experiment with televising federal trial. The people who brought this case, the opponents of Prop 8, said fine, no problem. But supporters of Prop 8 challenged that decision. And Judge Walker came up what he thought was a compromise. He said he would record the trial and then broadcast it on a delayed basis via YouTube.

The Prop 8 side said that a televised trial would lead to witness intimidation. And they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a temporary stay this morning. And the justices want more time to consider the matter and their stay is in effect until Wednesday afternoon Eastern Time.

BLOCK: Well, set the scene for us at the court house there in San Francisco. What's it been like?

GONZALES: Well, there was a small demonstration of people favoring gay marriage in front of the court house, but it was far smaller and more restrained than in past court hearings. And, today, inside the court room, opening arguments by the lawyers against Prop 8, basically the message they delivered was that Prop 8 does harm to gays and lesbians by denying them the right to marry, which they called a basic civil right.

And then on the opposing side, the lawyer for Prop 8, Charles Cooper, argued that since ancient times the fundamental purpose of a marriage is the protection of children created by man and woman who join together to procreate.

Now, I want to play for you just a couple of comments from an Oakland couple, Ellen LaPointe and Kleigh Hathaway. And they've been together for 17 years and they talked about the roller coaster effect of this debate in which the legality of their marriage is in and out of the courts and subject to the will of the voters. First, Ellen LaPointe.

Ms. ELLEN LAPOINTE: You know, what might look a little different in terms of which court we're in this time and different plaintiffs and the like, it's still the basic, you know, fundamental issue, which is why can't we marry? I'm hopeful, but I am much more cynical, you know. I hope it works out, and I'm going to live my life.

GONZALES: And I think you can hear a sense of weariness and apprehension there.

BLOCK: Now, this case, Richard, has brought together two heavyweights in the legal world. They've been on opposite sides in at least one key case in the past. And now they're working together on behalf of same-sex couples.

GONZALES: That's right. The challenge to Prop 8 is brought by Ted Olson and David Boies, a legal odd couple, if you will. Olson is a prominent conservative litigator who argued successfully for George W. Bush before the U.S. Supreme Court in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. David Boies was on the opposite side in that case. He argued unsuccessfully for Al Gore. And now the two have joined forces to oppose Prop 8.

And when you bring that kind of court room muscle, it tends to raise expectations. And being inside the court room today, you could feel as if it were an important historical and legal moment.

BLOCK: A moment not just there in California, but apparently it could also have huge national implications.

GONZALES: That's right. Regardless of how this trial turns out, the verdict will be appealed and this is only the first step on a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. And up until now, gay marriage has been handled only in state courts or during elections. So what both sides want is a federal ruling, most likely from the Supreme Court and that will establish a national standard for whether same-sex couples can marry.

BLOCK: Okay. Richard, thanks a lot.

GONZALES: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Richard Gonzales joining us from San Francisco, where the federal trial started today on California's gay marriage ban.

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