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This may not be the final judgment on California's Proposition 8, but today's court hearing over the California ballot measure comes at the highest level yet. A federal appeals court will consider the vote that Californians took to ban gay marriage. The question is whether the ban is constitutional.

We start our coverage with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Be forewarned: The back-and-forth history of same-sex marriage in California can be a little dizzying. Here goes. In 2000, voters passed an initiative that legally defined marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman. Several lawsuits over the ensuing years eventually led to a review by the state's Supreme Court in 2008. Those justices decided the earlier ballot initiative was discriminatory and, therefore, invalid. So about 18,000 same sex couples married between June and November of that year.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

BATES: Then, that November, voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the Constitution to once more limit marriage solely to heterosexual couples. The weddings stopped, but Prop 8 opponents immediately sued. This year, a U.S. district judge heard the case and ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional. And that brings us to today, when the case comes before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

As you can imagine, feelings and tempers ran high on both sides of the debate, and that made it hard for Prop 8 supporters and opponents to discuss the issue rationally. In a moment, you'll hear from my colleague Nina Totenberg, who has a profile of a surprising opponent of Prop 8. Right now, I want to introduce you to two of its supporters.

Pastor DUDLEY RUTHERFORD (Senior pastor, Shepherd of the Hills): We have all kinds of people in this church here that have come from every imaginable background.

BATES: Dudley Rutherford is senior pastor of Shepherd of the Hills, an evangelical mega-church in an affluent Los Angeles suburb. A big man with intense eyes and a folksy voice that reminds you of TV's Dr. Phil, Dudley Rutherford says his 10,000 member church includes gay members and employees.

Pastor RUTHERFORD: We've actually hired people that, at one time, were practicing homosexuals, and they have become celibate and decide that they no longer want to live, you know, fulfill that lifestyle.

BATES: When same-sex couples say they don't want to be excluded from the covenant of marriage, Rutherford says he understands, but insists he doesn't make the rules, he relays them.

Pastor RUTHERFORD: It's not a matter of they're left out or excluded. It's a matter of the rest of us trying to live according to his word and what his plan is for our life.

BATES: God's plan, Pastor Rutherford says, is clearly outlined in the Bible: marriage is one man and one woman. He's dreading how life will change for him if Prop 8 is stuck down.

Pastor RUTHERFORD: That will fuel what's called hate crime speech legislation. That's the next step. I firmly believe the next - if this thing passes, it will be against the laws of the land for me to stand and simply preach what's in the word of God.

BATES: His fellow minister, Pastor Brad Bailey, believes same-sex marriage is inevitable, and to some extent, he can see why.

Pastor BRAD BAILEY (Pastor, Vineyard Christian Fellowship): I think that's one of the strong positions made for opposing Prop 8, is the sense that it brings more stability to relationships, and therefore, more stability to culture and families and children.

BATES: Bailey pastors Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a thriving, diverse congregation in West Los Angeles. In his office above the church-run coffee shop, the tanned, bearded pastor says this is what worries him: redefining the traditional roles of men and women in the family.

Pastor BAILEY: If in some ways what we're doing now is deciding that gender is not as defining of us and that fathers and mothers don't have a particularly unique role to play, that has huge implications.

BATES: But in order to consider those implications, Bailey says, each side has to be able to listen to the other, and feeling demonized by their opposites makes Prop 8 supporters wonder if it's even worth the effort.

Pastor BAILEY: When it's seen as a reflection of close-minded people that are acting in hate, I think it's only natural that people would really question seeing any value in it.

BATES: But as you'll hear next, some voices are weighing in on an unexpected side of this debate.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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