The legal battle over gay marriage in California continued today in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, prompting the next chapter in what could be the most important civil rights struggle in recent history.
The court heard oral arguments on Monday, and its decision could either put the case to rest or set the stage for a historic battle in the US Supreme Court.
In August, Chief US District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriages unconstitutional. The ban was the result of a referendum supported by a slim majority of 52 percent of California voters in 2008.
Walker's sweeping ruling crushed many of the Proposition 8 proponents' arguments that defined marriage as a traditional institution to promote responsible procreation, and established that the ban on same-sex marriages violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
Top state officials did not challenge the ruling that struck down the ban, so Proposition 8's original proponents appealed the decision themselves.
A panel of three judges on the Ninth Circuit considered two major legal points: whether the Proposition 8 proponents have legal standing to appeal Judge Walker's ruling, and if the voter's decision to ban gay marriages can stand under the Constitution.
The court could simply find that the Proposition 8 proponents, who are backed by conservative groups, lack the legal standing to appeal, and allow the injunction on the ban to stand.
If the court decides to rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the resulting appeal could give the Supreme Court a chance to set a national precedent on the legality of gay marriage.
Plaintiff attorneys representing the gay couples have said in the past that they are seeking a Supreme Court ruling that finds marriage to be a right guaranteed equally to gay and straight couples alike.
Proposition 8 proponents continued to argue that marriage is a traditional, "ancient" institution that serves to promote responsible procreation, and that children are better off being raised by a mother and father - a key claim that Walker found to be unsubstantiated by the evidence presented earlier in the district court.
The proponents argued that, because responsible procreation benefits society, voters in California had every right to pass Proposition 8 and ban gay marriages.
"When a relationship between a man and a woman becomes a sexual one, society has a vital interest in that," said Charles Cooper, an attorney representing the proponents.
The plaintiffs fought back with what could go down in history as a crucial argument for civil rights and the rights of gay people in the US.
"Fourteen times the Supreme Court has stated that marriage is a fundamental right of all individuals," plaintiff attorneys Theodore B. Olson and David Boies wrote in their filing. "This case tests the proposition whether the gay and lesbian Americans among us should be counted as 'persons' under the 14th Amendment, or whether they constitute a permanent underclass ineligible for protection under that cornerstone of our Constitution."