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California's Gay Marriage Trial Gears Up for High Court

Inside a federal courthouse in San Francisco, California, the trial to overturn a ban on gay marriage is wrapping up.

Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, commonly known as the Proposition 8 trial, has raised debates in secular and religious communities across the United States. But sorting out these moral and legal arguments can make following the trial, and its ramifications, confusing.

Stuart Gaffney married John Lewis in 2008. Both men head Marriage Equality USA, a grassroots organization that promotes the freedom of gays and lesbians to marry.

"Having your rights up for a popular vote as happened with Proposition 8 was particularly stressful," he said.

The question of whether marriage is a constitutional right weighs heavily in this debate.

Supporters of gay marriage say that it is and that you can't put people's rights to a vote.

But attorney Austin Nimocks of the Alliance Defense fund, the group defending Proposition 8, disagrees. "Well there's no right to same-sex marriage in the United States Constitution," he said.

This, too, is complicated. The fourteenth amendment to the constitution guarantees equal protection for all under the law but makes no reference to marriage one way or the other. Because of this, the lawyers on both sides, as well as the public, spent much of the trial trying to define it.

On the streets outside the courthouse, and in the gay-friendly Castro neighborhood nearby, it's business as usual. The trial, unlike the vote on Proposition 8, has provoked almost no public demonstration in San Francisco.

Ken Avery volunteers at Under One Roof, a store in Castro which donates profits to the HIV/AIDS community. He participated in demonstrations against Proposition 8 two years ago and explains why people may not be taking to the streets over the trial now. "The election had consequences that day. This trial I think a lot of people look at as the beginning of a very long process," he said.

This process, many observers say, will include appeals and retrials at higher courts until the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. A vigil held early on the first day of testimony has been the main demonstration about the trial in San Francisco since it started January 11. Hundreds of gay marriage supporters, including Gaffney and Lewis, gathered outside of the courthouse to, as Gaffney puts it, bear witness to history.

"I think what we're really bearing witness to here is love. Many of the people who came to the vigil were there because they were in love and want to support others in love," he said.

But Nimocks argues that this trial, more than anything else, is about democracy. "The most important and the most cherished right of all is the right to vote. And so when you have over seven million Californians vote on something very important, upholding their right to vote on that and make that important decision is of the utmost importance under the United States' constitution," he said.

Many opponents of gay marriage say that Californians already decided this issue in 2008. Others, though, like Avery, believe that this trial has a much deeper significance.

People often ask him why this issue matters so much. Why gay people need to say they're married when civil unions afford them almost the same legal rights as straight couples. Avery tells them he remembers growing up in Oklahoma during segregation and seeing separate water fountains outside of his courthouse.

"They were identical water fountains. And I say, 'Why were the African American people so upset that the coloreds had just that water one fountain?' And I think the more telling question is, why was it so important for whites to have their only water fountain? And I think it's that when you have the exclusive use of that, you're telling the other people that they are not as good as you. They do not deserve it as you do. And every time you drink from that coloreds-only water fountain, you're buying into 'I am less than you are better," he said.