As the highly anticipated federal trial over California’s Proposition 8 started in San Francisco on Monday, the question of whether the case would be televised remained unresolved.
Concern over the issue has underscored the intense media and public interest in the case — as well as the desire of the Hollywood activists and politicos challenging California’s ban on same-sex unions to ensure the maximum publicity and coverage.
Early Monday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay that halted plans to show the trial online and to other courthouses across the country. The stay until Wednesday afternoon was granted to give the court more time to consider the issue. Proponents of Prop. 8 are opposed to camera coverage, voicing a fear that their witnesses will suffer harassment and retribution if their faces are shown.
The issue was a sidelight to a day in which the attorneys on both sides, Ted Olson, representing two same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses last year after Prop. 8 passed, and Charles Cooper, representing the proponents of the initiative, presented opening statements. But they were more like opening arguments, as U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker repeatedly interrupted each with lines of devil’s advocate reasoning.
For example, Walker challenged Olson’s argument that Prop. 8 took away marriage rights from same-sex couples, noting that such a right had been available for only a half-year between a California Supreme Court decision that made such marriage legal and the passage of Prop. 8, which overturned it. “They didn’t have that right very long.”
Meanwhile, he pressed Cooper on how he will come up with evidence showing that same-sex marriages harm heterosexual unions. And when Cooper noted that even President Obama opposes same-sex marriage because of its traditional definition rooted in religion and society, Walker pointed out that Obama’s own parents would not have been able to get married in the ’50s and ’60s because of the laws in some states prohibiting interracial marriage. “That indicates there has been a change” in the definitionof marriage, Walker said.
An emotional moment came as Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, two of the plaintiffs, each outlined, sometimes choking back tears, how they were unable to get a marriage license and felt stigmatized because of it. Zarrillo, general manager of operations for AMC Entertainment, and Katami, manager of group fitness at Equinox, argued that they did not want to take the option of a domestic partnership because it was not equal in the view of society.
Two other co-plaintiffs, Sandy Stier and Kris Perry, testified about the awkwardness they face when forced to explain the legal status of their domestic partnership. “It doesn’t describe our relationship in a way that feels authentic,” Stier said in testimony later in the day.
But Andrew Pugno, general counsel of Protectmarriage.com, said at a press conference after the day’s proceedings that the plaintiffs’ stories of getting “puzzled looks” were not an excuse to invalidate Prop. 8.
Among those attending the proceedings: producer Bruce Cohen, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Rob Reiner, who are on the board of a nonprofit, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, that is backing the case.