SAN FRANCISCO — The national gay marriage debate shifted to California on Tuesday, as the state's highest court heard more than 3 1/2 hours of arguments on the constitutionality of a voter-approved law banning same-sex marriage.
Gay rights advocates sued to overturn the ban four years ago after the court halted a months-long same-sex wedding spree that saw thousands of couples marry at City Hall.
"I think I speak for everybody when I say that this has been a long time coming and a day that has been eagerly anticipated," said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who is representing the city in a lawsuit supporting gay marriage.
The court heard arguments in six cases that were filed after the court stopped the same-sex marriages in the winter of 2004. More than 4,000 couples exchanged vows at the direction of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom months before gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, although the high court ultimately voided the unions.
The seven justices asked whether California already protects the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples through domestic partnerships. They also wanted to know if a ruling 60 years ago legalizing interracial marriages in the state gave them a precedent for striking down the same-sex marriage ban.
In briefs submitted to the court, same-sex marriage supporters argued that California's Constitution leaves no room for denying gays and lesbians the right to wed.
They say that while the state is one of a handful where gay couples are entitled to most of the same legal rights as married spouses, the institution of marriage is too important to allow for alternatives that are by definition inferior.
The state and same-sex marriage opponents, however, maintain that limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex is reasonable — not only to uphold tradition but because California voters approved a ballot initiative eight years ago bolstering the gay-marriage ban that was in place at the time. To overturn that law, they say, would abrogate the rights of all Californians.
A trial court judge in San Francisco agreed with gay rights advocates and voided the state's marriage laws in April 2005. An appeals court overturned his decision in October 2006.