Cases challenging definition of marriage will be heard today in Calif.


SAN FRANCISCO - The cases ultimately expected to reach the California Supreme Court and decide whether the state's gays and lesbians should be granted civil marriage rights will be heard today by a San Francisco Superior Court judge.

At the heart of the consolidated lawsuits - brought by the city of San Francisco and a dozen gay and lesbian couples - is the contention that current law defining marriage as "between a man and a woman" violates the state Constitution by denying homosexuals the "fundamental right" to marry the person of their choosing.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer, defending existing law, counters that California is dedicated to equal rights and benefits for same-sex couples, evidenced by a sweeping domestic partners law that takes effect next month.

Balancing these efforts, he said, is the state's interest in maintaining "the common and traditional understanding of marriage" as heterosexual.

"The responsibility of my office is to defend current law. ... So we've tried to make the best argument that can be made," said Lockyer, a self-described supporter of gay rights.

Conservative groups that have filed lawsuits on the issue argue points that Lockyer has disavowed: that the state has no interest in supporting gay marriage because homosexuals cannot naturally procreate and that children of gay and lesbian unions fare poorly.

All arguments will play out today in a courtroom across the street from the ornate City Hall where more than 4,000 same-sex couples were granted marriage licenses last spring under a directive from Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom's move - which came months after the Massachusetts high court upheld same-sex marriage - was later deemed illegal, and the licenses were invalidated.

But it set in motion a series of nationwide gay marriage initiatives and counterinitiatives in an election year.

The San Francisco Superior Court cases stemmed from Newsom's action.

"The question that will be discussed goes to the core of everything we've been trying to advance," Newsom said. "The national ramifications if California goes the way of Massachusetts would be quite extraordinary."

Newsom has been lambasted by some fellow Democrats for his actions, which some contend helped President Bush win a second term and contributed to a nationwide anti-gay marriage backlash.

Last month, voters in 11 states approved state constitutional amendments banning such marriages.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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