Local activists following arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding same-sex marriage are now concerned that the court will rule narrowly, striking down a California law that bans same-sex marriage on technical grounds and stopping there.
The court is hearing two cases, one involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act -- which denies some basic federal employment benefits to gay couples -- and one challenging California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriages. The justices heard arguments on the California case Tuesday and will move on to the federal case Wednesday.
The technical question that could prove pivotal relates to the fact that both the State of California and the federal government have declined to defend the two laws against challenges.
The Supreme Court could well find that the conservative groups who have stepped forward in defense of the laws have no legal standing to do so, because they have nothing of substance at stake, experts have suggested.
"Clearly, in the case of Proposition 8, it would be our hope that the justices do not decide the matter on a technicality as to who has standing on the case, whether they are even allowed to bring the case forward, and that the Supreme Court would certainly look toward finding equality and justice for LGTBQ people," said Jan Whitman, board president at the Hudson Valley LGTBQ Community Center in Kingston.
As the executive director of The Loft, a community services center for the lesbian and gay community based in White Plains, David Juhren has been watching the testimony closely, he said.
Juhren also said he sensed the justices might be leaning toward a narrow ruling that would effectively overturn Proposition 8 in California but not set any broad legal precedent for gay marriage nationally.
Juhren will rally with local lawmakers and other activists Wednesday morning in front of White Plains City Hall. No matter how the court rules, he won't see it as a defeat, he said.
"Our community has had to put up with a lot, and we just keep coming back," Juhren said. "We will continue to struggle for our equal rights and keep at it, and that's how we do it."
Juhren's group has an ally in Rep. Sean Maloney (D-Cold Spring), who is openly gay and has rallied the community around the marriage issue.
"DOMA and Proposition 8 are discriminatory laws that impact millions of American families," Maloney said in a statement Tuesday. "In the upcoming months, I hope to be able to sit down with my three beautiful children and tell them that their family now has the same basic rights as every American family."
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison) will join Juhren and other activists Thursday morning in White Plains.
"The Defense of Marriage Act discriminates against gay and lesbian Americans and is incompatible with the idea of equality," Lowey said in a statement. "For those reasons, I believe the Defense of Marriage Act must be overturned. It's time for marriage equality in our country."
Whitman said she's watching the Supreme Court cases closely but won't be distracted from the larger goals.
"No matter what decision they come to, we recognize that there is still much work to be done, whether it is legislatively, through the judicial system or simply in winning the hearts and minds of people," she said. "And clearly, that is happening."
It was clear from the start of the 80-minute argument in a packed courtroom that the justices, including some liberals who seemed open to gay marriage, had doubts about whether they should even be hearing the challenge to Proposition 8.
A skeptical Justice Samuel Alito cautioned against a broad ruling in favor of gay marriage precisely because the issue is so new.
"You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution, which is newer than cellphones or the Internet? I mean, we do not have the ability to see the future," Alito said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a potentially decisive vote on a closely divided court, suggested the justices could dismiss the case with no ruling at all.
Such an outcome almost certainly would allow gay marriages to resume in California but would have no impact elsewhere.
On the one hand, Kennedy acknowledged the recentness of same-sex unions, a point stressed repeatedly by Charles Cooper, the lawyer for the defenders of Proposition 8. Cooper said the court should uphold the ban as a valid expression of the people's will and let the vigorous political debate over gay marriage continue.
But Kennedy pressed him also to address the interests of the estimated 40,000 children in California who have same-sex parents.
"They want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?" Kennedy said.
Yet when Theodore Olson, the lawyer for two same-sex couples, urged the court to support such marriage rights everywhere, Kennedy feared such a ruling would push the court into "uncharted waters."
With The Associated Press