WASHINGTON — They mostly kept their distance, these supporters and opponents of gay marriage, as they massed Tuesday in front of the stately Supreme Court to proclaim with signs and sayings their conflicting views about a cutting-edge issue now in the hands of America's top jurists.
People who favor legalizing same-sex marriage carried pictures of gay weddings and families and held signs that read "marriage is a constitutional right." They waved American and rainbow flags as the nine justices began hearing two days of arguments in gay marriage cases.
For their part, opponents staked out a roadway in front of the court, hoisting placards, including one exclaiming, "Every child deserves a mom & dad" and another exhorting: "Vote for holy matrimony." And members of the crowd shouted out, "Equal justice under the law," the motto inscribed on the face of the marbled court building.
By the time the court began with its proceeding the sidewalk outside the court was packed and supporters spilled over to the other side of the roadway. "Gay, straight, black, white, marriage is a civil right," the crowd chanted at one point, followed by "we honor this moment with love." Many supporters of gay marriage came with homemade signs including ones that read "a more perfect union," ''love is love," and "'I do!' want 2 B (equals)" Some signs had pictures of gay couples. "Together 34 years," read one, "married with pride," said another.
Actor-director Rob Reiner, who helped lead the fight against California's Proposition 8, was at the head of the line. Some people had waited since last Thursday — even through light snow — for coveted seats to hear the argument.
Gahan Kelley and Bonnie Nemeth, both 69, of Richmond, Va., came holding matching signs with their California marriage license on one side and a picture of their wedding ceremony on the other. The couple got married in California during the 142 days when it was legal. The women, who have been together, for 35 years, said they've been to many demonstrations but that being at the Supreme Court was special.
"This decision can change our lives tremendously," said Kelley, who talked about the ability to get Social Security benefits and inheritance laws.
Nemeth said she was hopeful that the court would support gay marriage.
"I really think we're going to win," she said.
Supporters of gay marriage were initially the majority of the crowd standing outside the court, but a smaller group stood holding signs backing traditional marriage. Mike Krzywonos, 57, of Pawtucket, R.I., wore a button that read "marriage 1 man + 1 woman." Krzywonos, a retired metal worker said his group is the "silent majority."
"The whole country does not want this," he said as helped hold a sign that read, "just because you don't get it does not give you the right to change it."
The crowd of opponents swelled just as the court began considering the case not long after 10 a.m. EDT. Opponents staged a march down the street in front of the court as supporters stood on both sides of the roadway. Some conversations between the two sides got heated, even with police escorting the group. Austin Ruse, 56, was one of the people who exchanged words with the other side, asking two women supporting same-sex marriage whether a man should be allowed to marry his adult son.
"If anyone can get married then marriage has no meaning," Ruse said later.
Christine Clark, 47, of Pittsfield, Pa., was participating in the march with her teenage children and their cousin. She said she knows and loves gay people but does not believe in gay marriage.
"We're not hating," said her daughter, Lydia Clark, 13.
Outside the court after the argument had concluded, attorney Ted Olson, a former solicitor general, put his arm around David Boies, as the two addressed reporters and stood next to the two couples involved in the case. Boies called the arguments a "very thoughtful hearing."
Asked if the court was ready to make a sweeping ruling Olson said he had "no idea."
"The court never gives you an idea of how they're going to decide and they didn't today," he said. But Olson said that public support is in favor of same sex marriage.
"We are confident where the American people are going with this," he said. "We don't know for sure what the United States Supreme Court is going to do, but we're very, very gratified that they listened, they heard, they asked hard questions, and there's no denying where the right is and we hope that the Supreme Court will come out in that way when they make this decision in June."
The court will consider a second case involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, on Wednesday.
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