updated 10/14/2009 9:31:14 PM ET 2009-10-15T01:31:14

A federal judge challenged the backers of California's voter-enacted ban on same-sex marriage Wednesday to explain how allowing gay couples to wed threatens conventional unions, a demand that prompted their lawyer to acknowledge he did not know.

The unusual exchange between U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker and Charles Cooper, a lawyer for the group that sponsored Proposition 8, came during a hearing on a lawsuit challenging the measure as discriminatory under the U.S. Constitution.

Cooper had asked Walker to throw out the suit or make it more difficult for those civil rights claims to prevail.

The judge not only refused but signaled that when the case goes to trial in January, he expects Cooper and his legal team to present evidence showing that male-female marriages would be undermined if same-sex marriages were legal.

‘Naturally procreative relationships’
The question is relevant to the assertion that Proposition 8 is constitutionally valid because it furthers the states goal of fostering "naturally procreative relationships," Walker explained.

"What is the harm to the procreation purpose you outlined of allowing same-sex couples to get married?" Walker asked.

"My answer is, I don't know. I don't know," Cooper answered.

Moment later, after assuring the judge his response did not mean Proposition 8 was doomed to be struck down, Cooper tried to clarify his position. The relevant question was not whether there is proof that same-sex unions jeopardize marriages between men and women, but whether "the state is entitled, when dealing with radical proposals to make changes to bedrock institutions such as this ... to take a wait and see attitude," he said.

"There are things we can't know, that's my point," Cooper said. "The people of California are entitled to step back and let the experiment unfold in Massachusetts and other places, to see whether our concerns about the health of marital unions have either been confirmed or perhaps they have been completely assuaged."

Walker pressed on, asking again for specific "adverse consequences" that could follow expanding marriage to include same-sex couples. Cooper cited a study from the Netherlands, where gay marriage is legal, showing that straight couples were increasingly opting to become domestic partners instead of getting married.

"Has that been harmful to children in the Netherlands? What is the adverse effect?" Walker asked.

‘Proof of no harm?’
Cooper said he did not have the facts at hand.

"But it is not self-evident that there is no chance of any harm, and the people of California are entitled not to take the risk," he said.

"Since when do Constitutional rights rest on the proof of no harm?" Walker parried, adding the First Amendment right to free speech protects activities that many find offensive, "but we tolerate those in a free society."

Walker made clear that he wants to examine other issues that are part of the political rhetoric surrounding same-sex marriage but rarely surface in courtrooms. Among the questions he plans to entertain at the trial are whether sexual orientation is a fixed or immutable characteristic, whether gays are a politically powerful group, and if same-sex marriage bans such as Proposition 8 were motivated by anti-gay bias.

The lawsuit over which Walker is presiding was brought by two unmarried same-sex couples. They have since been joined by lawyers for the city of San Francisco.

Attorney General Jerry Brown, who was named as a defendant, has taken the rare step of agreeing with the plaintiffs instead of arguing to uphold the voter-approved law.

In allowing the case to move forward, Walker said significant questions remain about whether the California measure, which was approved by 52 percent of voters in November, unlawfully violates the rights of gays and lesbians to equality and due process guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. The measure overturned a state Supreme Court ruling earlier in the year that legalized same-sex marriages.

Thousands wed before law took effect
An estimated 18,000 gay couples wed before the law took effect. In May, the Supreme Court declined to invalidate Proposition 8 but upheld the existing same-sex marriages.

Chad Griffin, a Los Angeles political consultant who spearheaded the lawsuit, said after Wednesday's hearing that he was thrilled by Walker's ruling, "which brings us one step closer to the beginning of a federal trial where we will be able to prove the unconstitutionality of Prop. 8."

Cooper said he, too, would be ready to address the issues Walker outlined, though he declined to comment on the grilling by the judge.

"We all heard it, and we haven't had the benefit of reviewing it," he said.

Andy Pugno, general counsel to the coalition of religious and social conservative groups behind Proposition 8, said that after losing the election, supporters of same-sex marriage were trying to persuade the judge to substitute their views for those expressed by voters.

"What really is happening is the voters who passed Proposition 8 are essentially on trial in this case, and they continue to be accused of being irrational and bigoted for restoring the traditional definition of marriage," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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