New Jersey Supreme Court justices grilled lawyers on the issue of same-sex marriage Wednesday, asking what business the state has barring such unions, but also whether lifting the ban could open the door to legalizing polygamy.
The case involves seven same-sex couples who sued the state, saying it is violating its own constitution by denying them the right to marry.
"How do plaintiffs answer their children's questions about why they are not married?" asked attorney David Buckell, arguing for the couples. "The only answer is that the state does not think their relationships are worthy."
Conservative groups filed documents contending that allowing same-sex marriage would harm society. The state did not make that argument in defending its ban, but said allowing same-sex marriage is an issue for legislators, not judges.
"To allow same-sex couples to marry would not be removing a barrier to marriage, but redefining marriage itself," Deputy Attorney General Patrick DeAlmeida told the court.
DeAlmeida fielded the brunt of the judges' questions in the hour-long hearing, including what might be protected by preventing same-sex marriage in New Jersey, one of 16 states where it is specifically illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. The state also has no legal barriers for same-sex couples to adopt children and recognizes domestic partnerships, though those do not offer all the legal protections of marriage.
"The Legislature has an interest in protecting the institution of marriage," DeAlmeida said.
Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz responded: "It's not as if the institution of marriage hasn't changed in rather dramatic ways."
When asked about polygamy, Buckell said that marrying multiple partners is a different subject because it would introduce new issues, such as how divorce would work.
"You seem to be arguing that because it's complicated with polygamy" there's a legal difference, Poritz said, cautioning the lawyer to tread gingerly with that contention.
The court is not expected to issue a decision for months.
Outside the court building, about 40 people on each side of the debate rallied for their causes.
Members of groups such as Garden State Equality and the National Organization for Women waved black and orange signs reading "Marriage Equality" and chanting: "Two, four, six, eight, we're the state that doesn't hate."
"I've been with my partner for 20 years, I want what everyone else wants with marriage," said Stephen Wisner, 34, of Maplewood, who was among those shaking signs at passing traffic.
Opponents of same-sex unions prayed and sang hymns and "God Bless America." John Tomicki, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition to Rescue and Protect Marriage, said marriage is sacred and should be restricted to heterosexual couples.
"That's where our culture and history has been for thousands of years," Tomicki said.
Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage, although Vermont and Connecticut allow same-sex civil unions that confer the same legal rights heterosexual married couples get.
Eighteen states have amended their constitutions to ban gay marriage.
Also Wednesday, a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Idaho passed the state Senate and will go to voters this November.
If approved, it would mean that in Idaho, "a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized."
Opponents argued that a constitutional amendment isn't necessary because state law already defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Supporters say the amendment would prevent judges from overturning that law.
Last week, the measure passed the House 53-17 vote. The Senate vote was 26-9.