Hundreds stood steps away from the nation’s most powerful decision-makers as they heard oral arguments surrounding same-sex marriage – a top issue for young Americans and many GW students.
Students carried signs, chanted and called on the nine justices Tuesday and Wednesday to strike down California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in a 2008 referendum, and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits federal rights for same-sex couples.
Dozens of College Democrats and Allied in Pride members rallied alongside activists from across the country, including some who camped out on the cold, wet pavement overnight.
“This is a historic event and I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said sophomore Tessa Bay, who joined more than 100 others to sleep on tarps near the court Monday night. “I came from a Republican household, and though I was never against gay marriage, GW’s liberal campus really opened my eyes.”
Legal experts expect the justices to strike down Proposition 8 narrowly, instead of making a sweeping ruling in favor of gay relationships. Analysts also said justices’ questions during oral argument show that they could rule the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, though decisions will come out in June.
Same-sex marriage supporters gathered before speakers for the Human Rights Campaign’s rally Tuesday morning, and the crowd appeared calm until some participants in the right-wing March for Marriage began arriving from the National Mall. The crowd split as police officers lined either side of the road, and a stream of marchers made their way down First Street chanting “one woman, one man” and “Jesus is the way.”
Those in favor of same-sex marriage spilled over the curb as some ran from the speakers’ podium to clash with the opposition.
Demonstrators surrounded the marchers for marriage, calling for the separation of church and state and chanting, “Gay, straight, black, white – marriage is a civil right.”
Speakers included Lt. Col. Linda Campbell, the first American woman approved to be buried alongside her wife, who died in December, at Willamette National Cemetery.
“We tried very, very hard to grow old together before death did us part,” Campbell, who was legally married in Canada in 1994, said.
Nick Gumas, president of Allied in Pride, took the stage for 30 seconds Tuesday – which he said gave him the opportunity to voice the nation’s college-aged generation’s support of same-sex marriage. Allied in Pride, GW’s largest LGBT organization, aims to create a supportive environment on campus.
“Our nation is not only ready for marriage equality, it demands it,” he said.
Last November, 52 percent of more than 600 students surveyed by The Hatchet said they were liberal or very liberal, compared to 13 percent of students who said they were conservative or very conservative.
About 30 percent of respondents ranked social issues, like gay marriage and abortion, as their most top concern while deciding between presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
The national nonprofit Campus Pride gave GW an overall rating of 4.5 out of five stars in 2011 for its resources for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The oral arguments at the high court came a week after a Washington Post-ABC News poll found a record 58 percent of Americans support marriage rights for gay couples.
Laws on same-sex marriage are patchwork across the country and banned on the federal level. Gay couples can marry in nine states and in D.C., which legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. Thirty-one states prohibit same-sex marriage in their constitutions.
If the court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, same-sex couples will be entitled to federal benefits that previously applied only to a husband and wife. But that decision would not require states that have banned same-sex marriage to allow it.
Charles Cooper, an attorney representing those in favor of Proposition 8, told justices Tuesday that the legalization of same-sex marriage would shift the “purpose of marriage” away from raising children and redirect it toward “the emotional needs and desires of adults.”
“Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new,” Justice Samuel Alito said Tuesday. “So there isn’t a lot of data about its effect. And it may turn out to be a good thing. It may turn out not to be a good thing, as the supporters of Proposition 8 apparently believe.”
Some GW supporters baked brownies to hand out to those standing outside the court, bundled in hats and scarves. Demonstrators could not hear the discussion inside, but most stayed energized.
Students from the School Without Walls, a public high school on campus, have built up their Gay-Straight Alliance chapter over the last year and organized a candlelight vigil across from the Supreme Court Monday evening.
“Even though I can’t get married now because I am too young and have a lot to think about, I want to know that if some day I find the woman of my dreams, I will be allowed to marry her,” Anna Tsai, the student group’s president, said.
Chloé Sorvino, Allison Kowalski and Colleen Murphy contributed to this report.