'Regular' couples at core of historic gay marriage case

5:26 PM, Mar 20, 2013   |    comments
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By Richard Wolf
USA Today

Take a farm girl from Iowa, a mother of teenage twins, a fitness expert who went to Catholic schools and a self-described "Jersey boy" and what have you got?

Perhaps the four people whose simple desire to say "I do" changes the face of marriage in America.

Sandy Stier, Kris Perry, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo have spent four years fighting California's prohibition against same-sex

They're also just two workaday couples living the American dream, with one exception - they can't marry their partners. And if the fame that comes with challenging Proposition 8 all the way to the Supreme Court has changed them, it's not obvious. marriage in various courts, a battle that will culminate Tuesday inside the highest court in the land. A sweeping decision in their favor - only one of several possibilities - could pave the way for successful challenges to other states' bans as well.

"We live in the same house; we drive the same cars; our kids are in the same schools," says Perry, 48, whose name adorns the case that already has made history,Hollingsworth v. Perry. "The whole point was to have this life."

With one key difference, her partner Stier, 50, notes: a marriage certificate. "For Kris and I, it will make a profound difference in our relationship," she says.

That relationship dates to 1995, when the two women met in a computer class. They moved in together in 2000, each bringing two boys to the household. And in 2004, they married in San Francisco - only to have the nuptials annulled by the city weeks later.

Katami and Zarrillo have been together 12 years, but they are on the other end of the child-rearing spectrum: They want to get married first, then raise kids.

Like Perry and Stier, they lead otherwise unremarkable lives: Zarrillo, 39, manages a huge multiplex theater in Burbank, while Katami, 40, produces home fitness products and videos. Their household includes two French bulldogs, Gordon and Gracie.

"We honestly think of ourselves as kind of regular, everyday guys," Katami says. "We're not asking for a special right."

What both couples want is what the California Supreme Court allowed for less than five months in 2008, before state voters took it away: the right to wed. During those months, about 18,000 marriages were performed, but Perry and Stier, Zarrillo and Katami abstained.

Now, the four are hoping for a sweeping, national victory, one that would carry implications for up to 38 other states that ban same-sex marriage. Under their best-case scenario, "if we win, so many other people win," Zarrillo says.

"We want the broadest possible positive outcome for Americans," Stier says. "The more people that can benefit from this, the better."

At times, it seems these four are mere props in a drama dominated by powerful lawyers and lobbyists. They are represented by former U.S. solicitor general Theodore Olson, a conservative rainmaker, and David Boies, his liberal opposite - except on this issue. The two were on opposing sides in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that decided a presidential election.

Their lawsuit claims that California's voter-approved ban - and, by implication, others like it - violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution.

"As a direct result of Proposition 8, plaintiffs - gay and lesbian Californians who are in committed, long-term relationships and who wish to marry - were deprived of the right to marry solely because their prospective spouses are of the same sex," their brief says.

The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case represents a risk for the two couples and the gay rights movement. Had it denied the appeal filed by proponents of Proposition 8, the federal appeals court ruling throwing it out would have been upheld, and gay marriages could resume in California after a four-year hiatus.

That would have cleared the way for these two couples and thousands more - couples who, they all agree, aren't all that remarkable otherwise.

Stier, the Iowa farm girl, and Perry, from California's Central Valley, each brought two sons from prior relationships to their union. They spent more of the next 13 years as PTA moms rather than activists, while also working: Perry directs a private early education program for disadvantaged children, and Stier runs information technology programs for a government health services agency.

Zarrillo, the Jersey boy who was raised in a "Donna Reed family," and Katami, who grew up attending Catholic schools, aspire to being as effective working parents as Perry and Stier have been.

All four are cautiously optimistic about their case.

"This is why you go to the Supreme Court - because the court is supposed to step in and protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority," Zarrillo says.

And once the arguments are over next week? "We're going to come home," Stier says, "and clean our house."

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