June 18, 2009 / 12:19 PM / in 8 years

Federal gay marriage challenge has Hollywood style

<p>Attorney David Boies (2nd L) addresses a news conference announcing a federal lawsuit to halt California's same-sex marriage ban, in Los Angeles May 27, 2009. Ted Olson and Boies, who squared off in the legal case that determined the 2000 U.S. presidential election, teamed up to challenge California's gay marriage ban in a move that if successful would allow same-sex couples to wed anywhere in the United States. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two same-sex California couples barred from marrying under the voter-approved measure, Proposition 8 (Prop 8), puts them at odds with gay rights advocates who see a federal court challenge as risky. Also present were Chad Griffin (L), board president of American Foundation for Equal Rights, plaintiffs Jeffrey Zarrillo (2nd R) and Paul Katami (R). REUTERS/ Fred Prouser</p>

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The story of two famous U.S. lawyers from opposite ends of the political spectrum banding together to launch a bold and unexpected fight for gay marriage sounds like it could have been written in Hollywood.

In many ways, it is.

A handful of political filmmakers led by a Democratic consultant have crafted a gay rights challenge they hope will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case which has its first hearing in a federal San Francisco court on July 2 could quickly make gay marriage a national right, or, some veteran gay rights advocates fear, cripple the movement.

The team has political experience, winning referenda in California in particular, and has brought together real-world firepower in the form of Ted Olson and David Boies, the lawyers who faced off in the 2000 election vote recount that led to George W. Bush’s presidency.

What sets them apart is the willingness to take on a court case that advocates steeped in the cause have avoided.

“Patience is a virtue I’ve quite frankly never possessed -- if patience is a virtue,” said Chad Griffin, 35, who began his career in the political big leagues more than a decade ago as the youngest person to work on a president’s West Wing staff.

“History is on our side, law is on our side,” added Griffin, who is gay.

Rob Reiner, the “When Harry Met Sally” director and advocate for children’s health, and Bruce Cohen, the producer of “Milk,” a film about the first openly gay elected politician in California, are two of the six-member board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, founded for the court challenge.

HIGH STAKES

Despite losses in California courts and at the ballot box, gay rights advocates have made major strides in recent months with marriage and domestic partner rights in a number of states, especially in the Northeast.

President Barack Obama’s Justice Department this week argued in a federal case against recognizing same-sex marriage, but Obama on Wednesday extended some federal rights to gay partners of federal workers in what he called a first step to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The federal judiciary is widely seen as conservative, and gay rights movement leaders have argued that a gradual approach to change public opinion and win in states would be crucial preparation for a challenge in the Supreme Court, which gauges public opinion in such morality-linked cases.

But with a swing vote in the nine-member Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy, already ruling in favor of gays in two important cases -- and no signs of court conservatives retiring soon -- the Los Angeles-based filmmaker group decided to act.

“You get into the habit, which I think is a good one, of going for it,” said Cohen. “From the political world we bring the knowledge that there is no such thing as a sure thing. From the Hollywood world, everything is a one in a million chance.”

Gays and their allies were astounded when California, considered trendsetter for social change, ended a summer of legal same-sex marriage last November by passing Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that limited marriage to man-and-woman couples. The state’s top court, which opened the way to gay marriage last year backed the ban in late May.

Griffin, expecting the state court’s rebuff, had been talking to friends who led him to one of the most conservative lawyers in the land -- Olson, who won Bush his presidency. But Olson passionately believed gays should be able to marry and believed the lawsuit, arguing Prop 8 was unconstitutional on equal rights and due process bases, could win.

“Half way through that conversation I realized that I was perhaps sitting across from someone who, if we decided to proceed, could become one of the most eloquent, important spokespeople in this movement for equality,” Griffin said.

Olson suggested to Griffin that he work with David Boies, who represented former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in the landmark Supreme Court case that led to Bush’s presidency.

Jarrett Barrios, incoming president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said the pair could help his cause. “It’s transcending politics and where we can transcend the politics of blue and red we will achieve full equality,” he said.

But long-time national gay marriage advocates are wary of the lawsuit.

“The lawsuit has been filed. We all have an interest in it going as well as possible,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. “The best way is to win more states and to continue moving more hearts and minds,” he said.

A loss could mean years before the Supreme Court revisited same-sex marriage, even if societal attitudes change. Moreover, an opinion backing marriage for only heterosexual couples could cause a backlash against gays in other legal fights.

It could take a couple of years for the case to wind its way up to the Supreme Court, which also could refuse to hear it. In the mean time, the public debate led by the super-lawyers may help the gay marriage cause.

Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Jackie Frank

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