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Marriage historian testifies in Prop. 8 trial in San Francisco

January 12, 2010 |  9:20 am

A Harvard history professor testified in San Francisco federal court today that procreation has never been the central purpose of marriage in the United States.

Professor Nancy Cott, who has written a book about the history of marriage in the United States, noted that George Washington, the father of the nation, was sterile. Procreation was one of the purposes of marriage but not "the central or defining purpose," Cott testifed. The larger purpose was to create stable households, she said.

Cott was called to the stand by lawyers for two same-sex couples who want to overturn Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that reinstated a marriage ban for gay and lesbian couples.

During the second day of the high-stakes trial, lawyers elicited testimony from Cott to contradict claims by proponents of Proposition 8. The lawsuit by the same-sex couples contends that Proposition 8, passed by 52.3% of California voters, violated federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

Unlike other marriage challenges, the suit is being decided in a full-blown, fact-finding trial intended to explore historical, psychological and religious meanings of marriage, the nature of sexual orientation and the history of discrimination against gays.

Previous challenges have focused primarily on legal issues.

After weeks of testimony, U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker is expected to issue a written ruling that lawyers on both sides predict will wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cott began her testimony Monday, saying that marriage has differed throughout the ages and in different cultures. She said African Americans were initially denied U.S. citizenship on the grounds that they could not marry Caucasians. Marriage, she testified, was a liberty right.

-- Maura Dolan at the federal courthouse in San Francisco