CINCINNATI - A federal appeals court was set to hear arguments Wednesday in six gay marriage fights from four states -- Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee -- in the biggest such session on the issue so far.
Three judges of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati will consider arguments that pit states' rights and traditional, conservative values against what plaintiffs' attorneys say is a fundamental right to marry under the U.S. Constitution. Large demonstrations are expected outside the courthouse by both opponents and supporters.
Michigan's and Kentucky's cases stem from rulings striking down each state's gay marriage bans. Ohio's case deals with the state's recognition of out-of-state gay marriages, while Tennessee's is narrowly focused on the rights of three same-sex couples.
Attorneys on both sides in Michigan and Ohio will go first and get a half-hour each to make their cases. Kentucky and Tennessee will follow, with 15 minutes for each side from both states.
A handful of people were at the courthouse Wednesday before it opened to reserve a seat in an overflow room for the hearing, including Frank Colasonti Jr., 61, of Birmingham, Michigan, who said he camped outside the building overnight.
Colasonti said he and his partner of 26 years married this year in Michigan, before a court order halted marriages pending the state's appeal.
"It's very important to show that we are like other people," said Colasonti, who shared a pillow during the night with a woman who was also among the first to get a ticket. "We wanted to show that our love is no different than what heterosexual couples share."
Wyatt Fore, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was at the courthouse at 6 a.m.
"I've always been jealous of my parents, who got to see the civil rights movement firsthand," said the 27-year-old law student at the University of Michigan. "Now, I get to be a part of history."
Fore, who is gay and single, said the marriage issue is about more than just specific rights and benefits.
"It's about equal rights in our society," he said.
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.
Constitutional law professors and court observers say the 6th Circuit could deliver the first victory to gay marriage opponents.
The three judges hearing the case are Jeffrey S. Sutton and Deborah L. Cook, both nominees of President George W. Bush, and Martha Craig Daughtrey, a pick of President Bill Clinton.
Sutton is considered the least predictable, shocking Republicans in 2011 when he became the deciding vote in a 6th Circuit ruling that upheld President Barack Obama's landmark health care overhaul.
Archbishop Dennis Schnurr urged Roman Catholics in the 19-county Cincinnati archdiocese to pray that the appeals court would uphold Ohio's 2004 ban on same-sex marriage in support of "traditional marriage" of "one man and one woman for life."
If the 6th Circuit decides against gay marriage, that would create a divide among federal appeals courts and put pressure on the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the issue for good in its 2015 session. The appeals court is not expected to issue a ruling for some time.
Two federal appeals courts already have ruled in favor of gay marriage, one in Denver in June and another in Richmond, Virginia, last week. On Tuesday, Utah appealed the ruling from the Denver-based court, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case and uphold the state's ban.
The 6th Circuit is the first of three federal appeals courts to hear arguments from multiple states in August and September.
The 7th Circuit in Chicago has similar arguments set for Aug. 26 for bans in Wisconsin and Indiana. The 9th Circuit in San Francisco is set to take up bans in Idaho and Nevada on Sept. 8.
Gay marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.