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Challenge to Calif. marriage law begins

Case in San Francisco expected to take a year

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ten months after San Francisco's mayor defiantly granted marriage licenses to thousands of same-sex couples, a judge began hearing arguments yesterday in a pair of lawsuits that seek to have California's one-man, one-woman matrimony law declared unconstitutional.

The courtroom of Superior Court Judge Richard A. Kramer is the first stop in what is expected to be a yearlong case, which could reach the state's highest court. The consolidated cases were brought by 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 marry.

"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.

The state government maintains that the progress the state has made in advancing same-sex 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," Louis R. Mauro, senior assistant attorney general, 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 derive from a decision by Mayor Gavin Newsom last winter to challenge state law by granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, about 4,000 couples in all. In his arguments, Minter listed Massachusetts, Canada, Belgium, and South Africa as among the places same-sex marriage is legal. The judge said he would rule after mid-January.

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