RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That federal court ruling upholding same-sex marriage, at some point in time, prompted a nationwide response, as NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: There's no doubt this case will make waves. You could already see it last night as rallies stretched through dozens of cities, all the way to the East Coast.

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Unidentified Man: We want gay marriage in Georgia. Gay Atlanta, let's celebrate.

SMITH: The question is whether yesterday's decision turns out to cause more of a ripple or a political and legal tsunami.

Professor ANDREW KOPPELMAN (Law, Northwestern University): What is the chances of that? Nobody knows.

SMITH: Northwestern University Law Professor Andrew Koppelman says it all depends on whether the case survives an appeal and makes it up to the U.S. Supreme Court. He says federal district court Judge Vaughn Walker increased his odds by basing his decision, not on his interpretation of the law, but rather on his finding of fact, something appeals courts defer to.

Prof. KOPPELMAN: He did not say that, as a matter of law, gay people are a protected class under the 14th amendment. He said that as a matter of fact, the justifications for this law that were offered by its defenders rested on factually false premises. And it's very hard for a court on appeal to say that he was wrong about that.

SMITH: Still, the U.S. Supreme Court is anything but a sure bet. With gay marriage banned in most states, Stanford University Law Professor Rick Banks say justices will be loath to swing so far ahead of public opinion.

Professor RICK BANKS (Law, Stanford University): Less than a decade ago, it was constitutionally permissible to put a man in jail for having sex with another man - less than a decade ago, that was permissible. And now, here we are, on the verge of same-sex marriage. I mean, it's too soon.

SMITH: If the court does opt to uphold a constitutional right to gay marriage in the next couple of years, Peter Sprig of the conservative Family Research Council agrees it would be explosive.

Mr. PETER SPRIG (Family Research Council): This would be the Roe v. Wade of same-sex marriage, that in fact, Roe v. Wade served only to polarize the issue of abortion, rather than to settle it.

Mr. BRIAN BROWN (National Organization for Marriage): Every time a court does this, we grow exponentially. People are fed up and that's what's happening right now.

SMITH: Brian Brown with the National Organization for Marriage has been leading rallies against gay marriage around the nation. He says Judge Walker's decision yesterday undermined public opinion and will ultimately bolster political support for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Mr. BROWN: It's going to make clear what the ultimate solution is. You know, this issue was working it out on the state level before Walker made this decision. Now, he's made it a national issue. It's going to be an issue in the election.

SMITH: Stanford Law Professor Rick Banks, agrees.

Prof. BANKS: You know, this is a Democrat's worst nightmare, basically.

SMITH: With midterm elections fast approaching, many Democrats agree there is little upside for them on this issue, right now, and it may be President Obama who feels it most of all.

Richard Socarides, a former Clinton administration advisor on gay issues, says President Obama has frustrated a wide swath of his liberal base with the fine line he's been trying to walk - opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, but also continuing to oppose gay marriage.

Mr. RICHARD SOCARIDES (Former Clinton Advisor): That's his problem, that he shows no signs of moving on this issue and it's coming at him now like a Mack truck.

SMITH: In some ways, this court decision may offer a little political cover to those supporting gay marriage. Democratic Congressman Barney Frank agrees it helps legitimize the issue. He's somewhat skeptical yesterday's decision will survive an appeal, but, he says, time is on the side of gay marriage.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Younger people simply are not nearly as concerned, as unhappy - they are more supportive. So, I do think that we are very likely to see same-sex marriage in coming years from a variety of legislative and judicial decisions, because the attitude is moving in that direction.

SMITH: As one advocate put it: gay marriage will only be secure when it stems from the court of public opinion, rather than a court of law.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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