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Lining up to witness Supreme Court arguments on gay marriage

March 25, 2013|By Brian Bennett

WASHINGTON -- Snowmelt puddled in front of the Supreme Court steps Monday as more than 50 people prepared to spend a damp night on the sidewalk, burrowed in blankets against freezing rain, to ensure a seat inside the courtroom when lawyers argue for and against Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban.

Some campers had been huddled under tarps and umbrellas for nearly a week, sustained by pizza, doughnuts and cups of hot coffee passed out by friends and well-wishers.

Jason Wonacott arrived on Friday hoping to be first in line, only to find there were 12 people ahead of him. He said that risking hypothermia and pecking out blog entries on his iPhone under a poncho would be one way to show his dedication to the cause of gay marriage.

Gay marriage through the years

“You have to be willing to do something bold and maybe a little bit crazy to show it is important,” said Wonacott, who is gay and works as a public relations consultant in Washington.

Wonacott, 25, grew up in Benicia,  outside San Francisco. He hopes the justices overturn Proposition 8 so that he can eventually be married in his home state. “It’s my way to fight the fight,” he said.

The Supreme Court doesn’t allow live television or radio broadcasts of its sessions, so lining up is the only way to see the justices' gestures and body language as they hear arguments and ask questions.  Audio recordings of the arguments are usually released by the court within hours of each hearing.

Most mornings the court is in session, the line begins to form around 7 a.m. Overnight camp-outs form every few years for high-profile cases on hot button issues, such as the Affordable Care Act or detentions at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The first 60 people in line when the chamber opens are very likely to get seats, said a court spokesman.

After the justices hear debate about Proposition 8 on Tuesday, the court will hear another set of arguments Wednesday about the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, in which Congress decided to withhold federal recognition of same-sex unions. Some of the bone-chilled people on the sidewalk are hoping to be in the courtroom to hear both cases.

FULL COVERAGE: Proposition 8

“Marriage is crucial for the future of society,” said Nate Oppman, 27, lying under a green tarp farther down the line. Oppman, who has been married to his wife, Joy, for a year and a half, looks to Genesis for the definition of marriage. God created marriage to be between a man and a woman when he created Adam and Eve, Oppman said.

His wife packed him off with a parka made with a battery-powered heating coil in the lining. “You’d think I was going to Alaska,” Oppman said.

Oppman grew up in Iowa, where same-sex marriage became legal in 2009 after a state Supreme Court ruling. He said he doesn’t want to see that precedent extended to other states.

He has been rotating with six friends who hold one another’s places in line during runs to change into dry clothes, buy hand warmers and charge cellphones. Others have simply hired people to hold their place for them.

Anthony Brown, 57, who is No. 11 in line, usually works as a home health aide, but this week he is between jobs and a friend called him on Sunday to see if he would be willing save a spot at the Supreme Court. He doesn’t know who he is holding the place for, Brown said, but he’ll be paid his usual rate -- $15 a hour.

Even though he isn’t sleeping on the sidewalk to see the argument himself, spending a few nights in the cold and wet has made him think more about the definition of marriage. He thinks the justices should rule that marriage is between a man and a woman.

PHOTOS: Key players in gay marriage cases

"Last time I checked, He [God] destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah over this very thing," Brown said.

As newcomers arrive at the makeshift encampment, everyone checks in with Rick, the first in line. He takes down their names on a clipboard kept dry inside a freezer bag and tries to maintain order and forestall fights. The gruff 58-year-old won't give his full name because he doesn’t want people digging into his private life, he said. Rick said he isn’t gay, but two of his close friends were recently married in D.C., where same-sex unions are legal.

 “I saw how important it was to them,” he said, and that experience made him decide to bring his sleeping bag and tarp to Capitol Hill last Thursday night. His sleeping bag is wet now, Rick said, so he plans to spend the last night sitting in a chair.

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brian.bennett@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

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