WASHINGTON As the U.S. Supreme Court began deliberations Tuesday on California's gay marriage ban, thousands of protesters outside staged their own version of oral arguments, underscoring the social and political tensions at stake.
Gay marriage opponents paraded past the Supreme Court building as part of the March for Marriage, while gay marriage advocates held a rally at the steps of the white-columned high court. Though the judges inside showed no sign they noticed the protesters, the activists seemed determined to influence the court of public opinion.
"One woman, one man," some marchers shouted, clutching signs that read, "Kids Do Best with a Mom & Dad!"
Gay marriage supporters, separated from the march by police officers on motorcycles, responded, "Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia's got to go!"
Despite the palpable emotion, confrontations remained verbal, with only a few heated arguments on a sunny but chilly morning in the nation's capital.
Protesters waved placards, sang songs and traded barbs. The outrageous outfits - or lack thereof - that mark gay pride parades were largely absent; a man dancing in a pink mesh shirt and bikini bottoms was perhaps the most notable exception.
Clever signs abounded on both sides. "God Made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," read one marcher's poster, while a pro-gay marriage sign played off the last name of lawyer David Boies, who argued in court against the ban: "Lesbians Love Boies."
Inside the court, the justices' questions about California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage suggested they were reluctant to rule definitively on the right to marriage for gay couples.
No decision is expected from the court until June. Despite the possibility that it could be narrow, protesters on both sides described the case as a pivotal moment.
"Imagine being able to tell your kids that you were here," said Matthew Brawn-Dexter, 28, who lives with his husband in Washington, D.C., which along with nine states is one of the few places in the United States where gay marriage is legal. Even if the court makes a more limited ruling that strikes down the California ban but leaves the issue unresolved elsewhere, he said that would be "one step closer."
'RAMIFICATIONS FOR A GENERATION'
Eric Teetsel, the executive director of Manhattan Declaration, a religious group that opposes gay marriage, said the case represented a potentially dangerous turning point.
"What the court decides could have ramifications for a generation or more, just as the court's decision on abortion launched a 40-year culture war," he said, referring to the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
Many opponents of gay marriage couched their position in social and political, rather than religious, terms, saying they recognize that the case will be decided on the law.
Others, however, were unapologetic about allowing their religious beliefs to inform their position on the matter.
"Marriage was created by God, so to say we need to separate church and state is ridiculous," Breena Telfer, 22, said.
Some gay marriage supporters were also clergy members, highlighting the delicate balancing act that religious institutions face in deciding whether to support gay marriage.
"The law cannot be used to impose anyone's religious belief on the nation," said C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal group that promotes social justice.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Cynthia Osterman)