Today, in a courtroom in California, a historic trial is beginning, one which may eventually decide the direction of civil liberties and constitutional rights in the United States into the foreseeable future.
That trial is Perry v. Schwarzenegger, and the battle for that most basic of civil rights, the right to marriage for anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is now officially underway.
Theodore B. Olson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, delivered his opening remarks this morning starting at 9 AM PT. In these, he reminded the court that "in the words of the highest court in the land, marriage is the most important relationship in life," and that basing the right to that relationship "on characteristics of an individual" is unconstitutional. He also noted that the stop-gap of domestic partnerships currently available in some states is an unequal alternative, and moreover, sounds like "a commercial venture."
"Proposition 8 singled out gay men and lesbians as a class, swept away their right to marry, pronounced them unequal, and declared their relationships inferior and less-deserving of respect and dignity."
Mr. Olson continued, noting that according to the California Supreme Court itself, "eliminating the right of individuals to marry a same-sex partner relegated those individuals to 'second class' citizenship, and told them, their families and their neighbors that their love and desire for a sanctioned marital partnership was not worthy of recognition." He then went on to lay out reasons for the importance of marriage, the harm Proposition 8 has done to gay and lesbian couples, and the lack of any valid reasons behind this exclusion.
Olson, a conservative who served as the attorney for the Bush side of Bush v. Gore, has received significant media attention for his involvement in this case. In an essay recently published in Newsweek entitled "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage," he explained his reasoning, noting that he sees this as an issue of "recognition of basic American principles[and] commitment to equal rights," not a reason to invoke politics. He went on to say that "Americans who believe in the Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and equal dignity before the law cannot sit by while this wrong continues."
(President Bill Clinton recently agreed, saying that his former reluctance to endorse gay marriages was because he was "hung up about the word," and that he "was wrong about that...I had an untenable position.")
Mr. Olson's remarks are just the beginning of a three-week trial, which is eventually expected to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Though Federal Judge Vaughn Walker had originally agreed to air the trial on YouTube, with some delay, the Supreme Court this morning overturned that decision, meaning that, at least until Wednesday, cameras will not be allowed inside the courtroom.
Nevertheless, this trial, a landmark of civil rights for our time, is sure to draw the eyes of the world. The stakes could not be higher, but as Olson said today: "that is exactly why we have courts, why we have the Constitution and why we have the 14th Amendment....That is why we are here today."