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US Appeals Court Hearing Gay Marriage Arguments From 4 States

US Appeals Court Hearing Gay Marriage Arguments From 4 States

CREATED Aug 5, 2014 - UPDATED: Aug 6, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A federal appeals court heard arguments in gay marriage fights from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee in the biggest session of its kind so far.

A three-judge panel is now considering whether laws barring recognition of same-sex marriages in those states are constitutional.

Attorneys representing multiple gay couples told judges from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Wednesday that's there's no rational reason for barring same-sex marriage.

Lawyers from the Tennessee governor's office said the state has an economic interest in married couples having children.

In the Tennessee case, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued an order requiring the state to recognize the marriages of three same-sex couples.

The lawsuit did not challenge laws barring same-sex marriage in Tennessee, only those that prohibit recognizing such marriages performed in other states.

Lawyers hired by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said the state should be allowed to ban same-sex marriage because it has an economic interest in married couples having children.

Kentucky's cases stem from rulings earlier this year that the state's ban on recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages and the state's prohibition on issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.

Michigan's solicitor general, Aaron Lindstrom, opened the arguments Wednesday afternoon.

"The most basic right we have as a people is to decide public policy questions on our own," Lindstrom said. 

But attorney Carole Stanyar said fundamental constitutional rights shouldn't be decided in popular votes. She represents plaintiffs in a case that began when a lesbian couple sued over state law barring them from jointly adopting their children.

Stanyar said the amendment "gutted the democratic process."

The cases pit states' rights and traditional, conservative values against what plaintiffs' attorneys say is a fundamental right to marry under the U.S. Constitution.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, gay marriage advocates have won more than 20 victories in federal courts.

No decision has gone the other way in that time. Observers said the 6th Circuit panel could be the first to deliver a victory to gay marriage opponents.

Gay marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The states are Oregon, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Delaware, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Illinois.

Hundreds of gay marriage supporters rallied near the courthouse before the hearings began. 

Advocates are holding up banners and signs urging "Freedom to Marry" or other messages in favor of legal challenges to bans in the four states.

The Fountain Square crowd included couples who married in states where same-sex marriages are legal and other longtime couples who say they are waiting for it to become legal in their home states.

There was little sign of public opposition near the courthouse; opponents said they planned to pray that the judges uphold "traditional marriage."

Frank Colasonti Jr. camped out overnight outside the federal courthouse in Cincinnati to secure a courtroom seat. He said he wants to show that gay couples share the same values as heterosexual ones.

The 61-year-old Michigan man obtained a courtroom spectator ticket Wednesday morning nearly six hours before the scheduled afternoon start.

Colasonti said he and his partner of 26 years married this year.

Matthew Mansell, one of the plaintiffs in the Tennessee case, married his partner in California, and after moving to Tennessee for a job transfer, filed a federal lawsuit in 2013 to have his union recognized.

“It's a long time coming, and I have a feeling it will go well, I am very hopeful. Other rulings across the country have changed and are ruling in our favor,” he said.

In February, a federal judge ruled that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. After the ruling, Kentucky's attorney general said he wouldn't defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage, but the governor stepped in and filed an appeal.

The Kentucky case was originally about getting respect for same-sex marriages performed in other states. However, two unmarried, same-sex couples ended up intervening in the case and fought for the right to marry. In July, the same federal judge ruled in their favor and declared the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. That's also on appeal.

(The Associated Press Contributed To This Report.)