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updated 5/14/2007 7:38:54 PM ET 2007-05-14T23:38:54

What will American relationships and families look like in The Year 2017? And, will it matter what they're called?

A gay marriage case argued this morning at the Connecticut Supreme Court could have a significant impact on those questions.

In the spring of 2005, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass a law granting civil unions to same-sex couples, without being ordered to do so. That Connecticut law grants gays and lesbians all the same legal rights of marriage at the state (but not federal) level that opposite-sex couples have.

Today, lawyers for eight same-sex Connecticut couples told the state's highest court that civil unions are not the same as marriage, and that the term "civil union" instead of "marriage" relegates them and their families to a separate, unequal, and therefore unconstitutional status for their relationships and families.

"What the state calls something does matter," Bennett Klein, the attorney for the couples, told the Supreme Court.

"Marriage is not just a bundle of legal rights. It's a status that has profound personal meaning to individuals. The only possible reason that the legislature denied marriage here and created a separate institution just for one minority group was because they thought marriage meant something.

"What is denied to these families is something that goes to the heart of equal protection--the right to be part of the fabric of society when they are the same as other couples and other families."

In his brief to the court, Klein argued that marriage is of "unparalleled prestige, respect and longevity," and that "few heterosexual couples would willingly substitute the nomenclature 'marriage' with 'civil union'."

But the State's lawyer disagreed, saying that calling the same bundle of legal rights by a different name is not discrimination.

"A difference in name alone between the state's identical statutory schemes for marriage and civil unions is simply not differing treatment of constitutional magnitude," wrote Assistant Attorney General Jane Rosenberg in her brief.

"Merely saying that civil unions can never provide for any same-sex couple the same 'profound personal meaning and value' as marriage simply does not suffice to constitute constitutional harm."

The power to define marriage and to decide whether same-sex couples' relationships can be called marriages, Rosenberg argued in court today, belongs in the Connecticut legislature.

"The Court should not choose sides in a policy debate," she said.

But, Justice David Borden asked Ms. Rosenberg, "Isn't it important that the children of these [same-sex] unions be able to answer, truthfully, 'yes, my parents are married'? Isn't it somehow 'lesser-than' to have to say, 'No, my parents aren't married, they're joined by civil union'?"

"It may well be that the legislature will decide that those arguments carry the day," Rosenberg answered, "but that belongs in the legislature's realm... That change must come from the democratic process, not from judicial fiat."

A decision is expected later this year, and it could set a precedent not only for the handful of states that currently have civil union laws of their own, but for other states debating the issue.

If the same-sex couples in Connecticut win, the Supreme Court could order the case back to the trial court, with instructions to order marriage licenses granted to them. It could also order the state legislature to rewrite the current marriage laws.

Barbara Raab is a news writer for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and also holds a J.D. from New York University School of Law.

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