U.S. Supreme Court finally takes up same-sex marriage

Washington, D.C. -- A crowd of protestors gathered in front of the Supreme Court as justices hear oral arguments on same-sex marriage. (Photo Credit: Anthony J. Rivera)

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a case that may decide the future of same-sex marriage across the country. Outside the court, observers and demonstrators packed the sidewalk and streets holding signs and flags. Aside from a brief disruption by a demonstrator inside the chamber, the court proceeding was solemn and justices listened intently to the arguments on both sides. All eyes are on Justice Anthony Kennedy, the presumed swing vote, in what some are calling the civil rights issue of our time. Anthony J. Rivera has the story from outside the Supreme Court.

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A mix of activists found themselves eyeball-to-eyeball, shouting at each other over LGBT rights and traditional views of marriage. Signs and flags whipped around in the air as some activists yelled through bullhorns. Crowds chanted in unison over opposing voices.

One piece of the demonstrations outside made its way inside the usually solemn chamber as justices listened to oral arguments.

“The Bible teaches that if you support gay marriage then you can burn in hell for eternity” yelled the demonstrator, who witnesses say stood up and started shouting before police removed him. The outburst shows the level of passion found on both sides of this case.

The questions before the court: whether equal-protection under the fourteenth amendment requires states to allow same-sex marriages and whether they must recognize the same-sex marriages from other states. Thirty-six states have legalized the practice while fourteen states have banned it.

If the justices strike down bans in the remaining states, they will effectively legalize same-sex marriage across the country for the first time in the U.S.

Several members of the court, Justice Sam Alito and Antonin Scalia, are nearly certain to rule in favor of state bans. Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to be the swing vote in the case known as Obergefell versus Hodges.

“Kennedy brought up the interracial marriage thing,” said Bradley Erlich, who came from New York to attend the hearing. Ehrlich’s assessment falls in line with Supreme Court experts fresh out of the chamber who say Kennedy seems to be leaning towards striking down the bans. Ehrlich says other questions were aimed at teasing out what the effects of their ruling on same-sex marriage might be. “I think the justices were more so trying to grasp what the future of this will look like.”

Susan Whitledge, who travelled from North Carolina to witness the arguments, says she heard references to maintaining the traditional family unit. “The opponent to gay-marriage was arguing very small points about men and women and mother and father for children and so forth and so on,” she remarked. The rebuttals, she says focused on adult choices and the negative effects a ban has on the children of same-sex couples. Whitledge says she never heard any questions from Kennedy on that topic.

Audio from the proceedings reflects scepticism by some justices to redefine marriage at this time. Observers report that the court was very interested in whether states with bans should be forced to recognize legal marriages from other states. Some say Justice Scalia played devil’s advocate as he is known to do. And as usual, Justice Clarence Thomas had no questions.

Yet plenty of questions remain.

Ahead of the hearing, people camped out in front of the court for days hoping to get a seat. Attorney Regina Lambert joined another member of the Tennessee contingent of petitioners. They talked to some of the people who waited in line for days. “I think that I’ve been, it’s been interesting to me to hear the questions regarding individual justices,” she said. “Where you think that the votes may come down.”

Both attorneys say many of those waiting to witness the proceeding had questions about topics ranging from jurisprudence to the justices themselves.

Frank Colasonti and James Ryder were also at the court Tuesday. The men were among 300 gay couples legally married in Tennessee before an appellate court restored the state’s ban. While they aren’t a part of the case, Colasonti says they simply came to support the petitioners as they’ve been supported. “Family and friends… I mean they… were very supportive of us,” Colasonti said as he fought back tears as he described the encouragement he and his husband have received throughout their own ordeal.

LGBT groups have made lots of progress since United States vs. Windsor which was decided in 2013. The landmark civil rights case said that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional in limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. But activists say there is plenty more to do in the areas of job discrimination and adoption. In an op-ed he wrote in the New York Times last week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal doubled-down on maintaining the social and religiously conservative cause when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Many say the court is likely to decide in favor of striking down state constitutional bans. Critics point out that while the court could uphold the bans they may require those states to recognize marriages from other states. The court is expected to rule on the case as soon as this June.

View a slideshow of photos taken outside the Supreme Court here.

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