SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Supreme Court is set Tuesday to consider a pivotal civil rights question that has sparked controversy in courthouses and contentious public debate: Should gay couples be allowed to marry?
From its courthouse in San Francisco, the seven justices are scheduled to hear three hours of oral arguments about whether the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional — an issue that has polarized politics and divided courts across the country for nearly a decade. But a decision by this high court, in the state with the largest number of homosexual couples, could reverberate well beyond California.
"This will be one of the — if not the— legal landmarks in the struggle for equal rights," said Geoffrey Kors of Equality California, a gay and lesbian advocacy group involved in the marriage litigation. "It will have a ripple effect not only in this country, but the whole world."
To date, only Massachusetts allows same-sex couples to legally marry. But supporters of gay marriage say they have hope California's high court will channel its legacy of progressive rulings, including its landmark 1948 decision to legalize interracial marriage, in the belief that people have a fundamental right to marry whom they choose.
Social conservatives and other foes of gay marriage are girding themselves for Tuesday's legal fight, which also will examine Proposition 22, the voter-approved initiative in 2000 that limited marriage to a man and woman.
New initiative drives are under way for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that would override a court decision and usurp the kinds of public policy confusion that has "trashed the people's vote," according to the Web site for Sacramento-based VoteYesMarriage.com, one of the groups concerned about how the high court may rule.
"The justices can destroy or protect marriage. If the justices alter the definition of marriage, then the people will certainly override them at the ballot box," said Randy Thomasson, president of Campaign for Children and Families, which helped draft the initiative and is a respondent in the state's marriage case.
Thomasson's organization, which will make the closing argument, has crusaded over the years to keep the institution of marriage between a man and a woman "for a good society, a stable society."
"If you get rid of the foundation of marriage — which is male and female — then it's super easy for the secondary issues to fall," he said, referring to age of consent, pedophilia and polygamy. "Society will have nothing special about marriage anymore."
The city and county of San Francisco, 15 same-sex couples, and gay rights groups are challenging the state's marriage law. The cases follow the fallout from the marriage licenses granted to gay men and lesbians at San Francisco City Hall in 2004.
The high court voided thousands of those marriage contracts six months later, but left unresolved crucial questions over equal protection, due process and privacy rights for gays.
In 2006, a state appeals court upheld the ban on same-sex marriage, reversing an earlier decision by a San Francisco Superior Court judge who found it to be unconstitutional.
The appellate court at the time stated the Legislature and the voters had determined marriage was for opposite-sex couples "and it makes no difference whether we agree with their reasoning."