California high court grills gay marriage backers

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California’s Supreme Court justices on Thursday grilled lawyers seeking to overturn a ban on gay marriage, signaling to some that the court would leave intact the state constitutional amendment on same-sex weddings passed by voters in November.

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The seven justices who opened the door to gay marriages last year by striking down a previous ban have 90 days to decide whether a proposition outlawing same-sex weddings approved by 52 percent of California voters in November should stand.

The case pits demands for equal rights for gay couples against voters’ will in what has become one of the biggest civil rights cases of the day. If the court overturns the ban, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, gay couples would again be allowed to marry in California.

Social conservatives and liberals both consider California a trendsetter that could shape the same-sex marriage agenda, even though an overwhelming majority of U.S. states have laws stopping gay couples from wedding. The November ballot sparked protests by gay advocates across the United States.

Kenneth Starr, the chief lawyer defending Proposition 8 and former U.S. solicitor general who lead the inquiry into President Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, repeatedly told the court that a simple majority could limit rights up to and including free speech under a state constitution designed to give citizens broad power to legislate through the ballot box.

Justices, including those who backed same-sex unions last year, asked questions showing they were wary of overstepping the court’s role.

Some 18,000 same-sex couples married between June, after the court ruling, and November, when the ban passed. They included Robin Tyler, one of the lead petitioners in the case heard on Thursday. In addition to ruling on the legality of the ban, the court is deciding the fate of the marriages in limbo.

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“I think they are going to uphold our marriages and they are going to uphold Proposition 8, and it’s a loss,” Tyler told Reuters after the arguments ended. “What I care about now is getting a million people in the street.”

Lawyer Andrew Pugno, part of the team supporting the ban, expressed satisfaction.

“I think it’s fair to say that the court seemed to signal support for Proposition 8,” he said, acknowledging court skepticism that the ban should be retroactive.

Only a handful of countries, mostly European nations, allow gay marriage.

Gay marriage opponents said overturning the California ban would change the nature of state government by gutting the people’s right to make law. Advocates say that the equality guaranteed by the state is at risk and that a simple majority vote is not sufficient for such sweeping change.

Reporting by Peter Henderson and Alexandria Sage, Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman