SAN FRANCISCO — God was in the eye of the beholder Thursday morning at the San Francisco Civic Center Plaza, where hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the California Supreme Court on a massive outdoor TV screen and wrangle over the sanctity of marriage.
The occasion: Attorneys from both sides of the gay-marriage debate were arguing the merits -- or demerits -- of Proposition 8, the November ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in California. The dress code: dreadlocks, nose rings, rabbit costumes, clerical collars, wedding veils, hair colors not found in nature (and some that were), rainbow stripes, American flags, suits. The demeanor: loud.
"You're bigger, God, much bigger than the small religious boxes that we put you in," Bishop Yvette Flunder of San Francisco's City of Refuge United Church of Christ declared at an al fresco, pre-hearing interfaith service. "We ask you for the freedom today . . . to have our relationships boldly without fear of reprisal."
Across the broad, rain-damp plaza, Los Angeles contractor Ruben Israel held in his right hand a sign that declared "Homo-sex" a "threat to national security." In his left hand was a bullhorn.
"If you think God is all-forgiving and loving and tolerant," he blared, "where was the tolerance from God when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah?"
And so it went for the better part of six hours as attorneys argued, justices probed, demonstrators shouted and entrepreneurs hawked buttons, T-shirts, churros, hot dogs, pretzels and lattes. Business, at least for caffeine, was brisk.
Couples on both sides of the debate pushed strollers, each trying to show with toddler-size flesh what a real family looks like. A bright red truck with a picture of two men kissing and a sign proclaiming "Homosexuality is sin" circled the block. Helicopters hovered overhead.
The much-ballyhooed "gay agenda" came in for multiple interpretations. A chatty T-shirt on one broad back exhorted America to "Stand up and stop the gay agenda. . . . Do not validate homosexual conduct to the children. It will be taught in school!"
A picket sign countered with a picture of a house with a family of four stick figures and the words: "The gay agenda . . . our hope . . . our prayer . . . our dream."
Posited a third: "The gay agenda: 1) Equality. 2) Shopping. 3) See #1."
Hard by the Civic Center Plaza, more than 100 opponents of Proposition 8 watched the hearing in a library basement. They cheered Chief Justice Ronald M. George: "It is just too easy to amend the California Constitution." They rolled their eyes at attorney Kenneth Starr, who argued for the measure.
Some 350 miles south, another group of activists gathered at West Hollywood Auditorium. Attorney Elissa Barrett and her wife, Zsa Zsa Gershick, sat in the front row. No matter what the justices end up deciding, Gershick said, "we are married in spirit."
Farther down the coast, Liz Agle, 27, held a viewing party in her San Diego home with friends who voted for the same-sex marriage ban. What she saw made her confident that the measure would stand.
Gays and lesbians, the self-described stay-at-home mom said, "still retain all the legal privileges in our state, which are the exact same as marriage. They just have to relinquish the title of marriage."
San Francisco's outdoor screen came compliments of anti-Proposition 8 activists, but it was a focal point for spectators of all persuasions. So was the massive American Renaissance-style state building across the street, home to the California Supreme Court. Action ebbed and flowed between the two all morning.
Dan Burton, a retired air traffic controller from San Clemente, began the day early on the chilly plaza to make sure, he said, that "the will of the people will not be subverted by judicial activism." His sign was a tad more pithy: "Those who hate real marriage should not have the right to pollute it."
Attorney Gloria Allred ended the morning at a lectern on the state building steps, trying to make herself heard during a raucous news conference. She praised her law partner, Michael Maroko, who "argued the most important civil rights battle of our time."
Then she challenged the noisy protesters: "Why don't you be a man or woman with courage and meet me afterward to debate?"
There appeared to be no takers.
Times staff writers Joanna Lin and Richard C. Paddock contributed to this report.