Clutching a stuffed animal, a young disabled man waited patiently as his two dads in Seattle listened to their lawyer argue that same-sex couples have a right to get married. A couple for 23 years, David and Michael Serkin-Poole care for 19-year-old Jason and another disabled adult daughter and son. In the absence of marriage, they have spent thousands of dollars on legal arrangements, including joint adoptions, to safeguard their family.
Gay and lesbian couples--and evangelical ministers-crowded the courtroom Tuesday to hear an eight-couple challenge to the state's Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts marriage to one man and one woman. It's a question headed for the state supreme court, King County superior court judge William Downing said. He promised to rule within 10 days.
Lawyers for King County and the state said the legislature had a rational basis for enacting the 1998 law and thus it should be upheld. "The state recognizes and protects the only relationship that can produce children," said Steven O'Ban, attorney for Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government and the Coalition for Community Development and Renewal, a group of inner-city pastors. The two groups intervened in defense of the state's law.
County and state attorneys said the weight of earlier court cases is against same-sex marriage. "There is no history and tradition of same-sex marriage, and for that reason the county's view is that there is no fundamental right," said Darren Carnell, a King County senior deputy prosecutor.
Arguing for the couples, attorney Bradley Bagshaw said the Defense of Marriage Act should be overturned because it violates the state constitution in several ways. In his view, it denies same-sex couples the privileges and immunities enjoyed by other citizens and deprives them of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. More than 300 benefits apply only to married people, he said. Nowadays families can be created through adoption, assisted reproductive technologies, and foster care, he said. He gestured toward the couples in the crowd. "What they are doing certainly looks a lot like marriage," he said. The couples live together, he said, and many raise children and care for aging parents. "It looks as much like marriage as any very good heterosexual marriage," he said.
Among those listening was Pastor Doug Wheeler of Christian Restoration Center, one of 42 black pastors who intervened. He rejected Bagshaw's argument that denial of same-sex marriage was similar to laws that once banned interracial marriage. "It just blows us away to use that argument. It is really disturbing," he said. "This is not really a civil rights issue. We're just saying, keep that foundation. All of us here are from the love of a man and woman. We're not against anything; we're just for the institution of marriage," Wheeler said.
But Vega Subramaniam, a plaintiff, has no doubt that same-sex marriage will become legal. "Whether it happens next year or in five years, people ultimately will recognize that our constitutional rights are too precious to violate," she said.
Six couples filed the lawsuit in March after they were denied marriage licenses from King County. King County executive Ron Sims, who is now running for governor, cited state law but invited the couples to sue. Two other couples joined the suit later. A second lawsuit was filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 11 same-sex couples. The ACLU suit, using similar arguments, contends that the state law violates state and federal constitutions, which guarantee equal protection. Washington is among 38 states with laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Massachusetts has allowed same-sex marriage since May. The issue is hotly contested in courts in several other states.