A coalition of conservative groups and lawmakers asked a federal appeals court yesterday to stop gay marriages, saying the state's highest court overstepped its bounds by changing the traditional meaning of marriage when it cleared the way for same-sex couples to wed.
Gay marriages began in Massachusetts on May 17, after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled last fall that it was unconstitutional to deny licenses to same-sex couples.
The groups urged the First US Circuit Court of Appeals to put an immediate stop to the weddings, arguing that only elected lawmakers -- not judges -- have a right to define marriage and that any change in that traditional definition should be left to a vote of the people.
In March, lawmakers narrowly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages and establish civil unions. However, that proposal must survive another vote of the Legislature, and won't go before voters until November 2006, at the earliest.
The plaintiffs contend that if gay marriages continue, only to be outlawed then, there will be more "marital mayhem" with legal challenges and complicated questions of child custody, benefits, tax filings, and other issues, said Mat Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a conservative law group based in Orlando, Fla. "If you let the horse out of the gate too far, it's hard to get the horse back in," Staver told the three-judge panel.
The court did not say when it would rule on the groups' request.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Robert Largess, the vice president of the Catholic Action League, and 11 state lawmakers: Representatives Elizabeth A. Poirier, Republican of North Attleboro; John A. Lepper, Republican of Attleboro; Edward G. Connolly, Democrat of Everett; Christopher P. Asselin, Democrat of Springfield; Philip Travis, Democrat of Rehoboth; James R. Miceli, Democrat of Wilmington; Peter J. Larkin, Democrat of Pittsfield; Robert S. Hargraves, Republican of Groton; Emile J. Goguen, Democrat of Fitchburg; and Mark J. Carron, Democrat of Southbridge; and Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, Democrat of Lowell.
The federal court refused an earlier request by the groups to halt implementation of the SJC ruling before the first licenses were issued.
Travis, the only lawmaker to attend the 40-minute hearing yesterday, said his power as a lawmaker had been usurped by the four Supreme Judicial Court justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage. "We never gave them the authority to redefine marriage," Travis said.
The state attorney general's office, representing the main defendants -- the Supreme Judicial Court and its justices -- maintained that the case does not belong in federal court. Assistant Attorney General Peter Sacks told the judges that the system of government had not been disrupted by the ruling. "The people remain in control of all three branches of government, and over the issue" of gay marriage, Sacks said.
Also involved in the case are the Boston-based Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights, the Thomas More Law Center, which is a Michigan-based Christian law group, and the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, based in Mississippi.
Karen Loewy, an attorney with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which intervened on behalf of the seven same-sex couples whose lawsuit led to the SJC ruling, said she expected opponents of gay marriage to lose this case, as they lost several other legal challenges prior to May 17.
"This court is just hearing a rehash of arguments that have been rejected by every other court that has heard them," she said.