SAN FRANCISCO — Ten months after San Francisco’s mayor defiantly granted marriage licenses to thousands of gay couples, a judge began hearing arguments Wednesday in a pair of lawsuits that seek to have California’s one-man, one-woman matrimony law declared unconstitutional.
Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer’s courtroom is only the first stop in what is expected to be a yearlong odyssey that ultimately could reach the state’s highest court.
The consolidated cases were brought by the city of San Francisco and gay advocacy groups representing a dozen same-sex couples. They seek to put California on par with Massachusetts, the only state where gays can legally wed.
“The assertion that marriage is inherently heterosexual can no longer be maintained now that there are a number of jurisdictions that allow same-sex couples to marry,” Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a packed courtroom.
Representing the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian legal group that opposes gay marriage, attorney Glen Lavy argued it was in the state’s interest to promote traditional marriage as the ideal environment for raising children.
“The state does not recognize marriage to give a welfare benefit to loving committed couples,” Lavy said. “The fundamental right to marry has always been about procreation.”
In court documents, the state government maintains that the progress the state already has made in advancing gay rights is sufficient to ward off a constitutional challenge.
“This is not a state like other states, where rights have been denied same-sex couples,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Louis Mauro said previously. “The issue is whether it’s unconstitutional to provide those rights and benefits without calling it marriage.”
The state also contends that if Californians want to legalize same-sex marriage, the way to do it is through the Legislature or a ballot proposition, not the courts. Two Christian legal groups have joined the state’s position.
At issue is a 1977 amendment to the California Family Code that defined marriage as “a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman.” Before that, the law on marriages was silent on the subject of gender.
The lawsuits are an outgrowth of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision last winter to openly challenge state law by granting marriage licenses to gays, about 4,000 couples in all.
In his arguments, Minter listed Massachusetts, Canada, Belgium and South Africa as among the places gay marriage is legal.
The judge said he would rule sometime after mid-January.
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