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Idealistic young corporate attorneys from two straight-laced Manhattan firms last week jumped into the thick of a cultural “wildfire,” as the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate has tagged the national tidal wave of gay marriages. Ceremonies have been formed by local officials in defiance of long-held social convention and, as in New York state, the law itself. Associates see their own activism in the cause of marital rights for homosexuals as a continuum of the 1960s-era struggle for racial justice, a cause in which many of their parents were involved. In separate challenges to New York’s prohibition against same-sex marriage, associates at Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison are now part of page-one news from coast to coast, as well as social controversy fanned by President George W. Bush’s push for a constitutional amendment to limit civil matrimony to heterosexuals. “An opportunity like this doesn’t come along too many times,” said Audra J. Soloway, a third-year securities litigation associate at Paul Weiss and graduate of New York University School of Law. “This is a basic issue of civil rights. “And it’s a wonderful case,” added Ms. Soloway, 28, “because our client is unambiguously in the right.” With the New York Civil Liberties Union, Ms. Soloway and three other Paul Weiss attorneys � associates Andrew J. Ehrlich and Douglas M. Pravda, and partner Roberta Kaplan � are co-counsel in Hebel v. West, 04-642, now before State Supreme Court in Ulster County. In that case, Mayor Jason West of New Paltz is under a restraining order to refrain from wedding same-sex couples. The Kramer Levin team � associates Norman C. Simon, Eric J. Shimanoff, Aaron M. Frankel and Steven S. Sparling, and partner Jeffrey S. Trachtman � is co-counsel with Lambda Legal in the Manhattan Supreme Court case Hernandez v. Robles, 103434/2004, a direct constitutional challenge to the state Domestic Relations Law. Opponents of same-sex marriage are a powerful force in the ongoing controversy. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, the state’s former attorney general, blames “activist judges” for the recent spate of gay marriages, and has called for a congressional investigation of “judicial invalidation of traditional marriage laws.” New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer last week said he was not personally against gay marriages, but the Democrat said he essentially determined that state law as it stands confines marriage to opposite sexes. And he suggested that Mayor West and others should wait until the state Legislature changes the law. Intangible Aspects “While the predominant aspect of marriage that gay people seek are the tangible rights and benefits that flow from the contract, there’s a huge intangible area,” said Kramer Levin’s Mr. Simon, 32, a graduate of NYU Law. “Marriage conveys with it a declaration of intent by the couple, and has a certain societal meaning. Denying gays that right sends a message of exclusion.” As to the frequent suggestion that civil unions should satisfy gay couples while marriage should remain heterosexual, Ms. Kaplan replies: “When you have a civil union statute, you have to go back and amend all the various law that exist, whether it be inheritance or tax or whatever, that use the word ‘spouse’ or ‘husband’ or ‘wife.’” Besides, she added, “The [U.S.] Supreme Court has already rejected ‘separate but equal.’ And we’ve had domestic partner law for years in New York City, but there are still private employers who do not offer same-sex health benefits. That, in and of itself, is proof that civil unions are different.” Paul Weiss’ Mr. Ehrlich, 29, a graduate of Harvard Law School, called such difference inherently unequal, just as the high court found back in 1954 in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in the public schools. “There are rare moments in time when there is convergence of the sense of the possible and a long-frustrated social movement,” said Mr. Ehrlich. “People of my generation have grown up in a culture that is much more comfortable with committed same-sex relationships. Our clients are thoughtful, committed people who manifest the kind of family values we all should have.” Kramer Levin’s Mr. Shimanoff, 31, a graduate of New York Law School, has done pro bono work in the cause of gay rights ever since his summer associate days at the firm. With respect to political backlash from President Bush and others of both mainstream parties, he said, “I worry that [gay marriage] was pushed to the forefront quickly. I worry that the climate isn’t as favorable as it could be. But people who are oppressed eventually get sick of being oppressed.” Kramer Levin’s Mr. Sparling, 33, a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said public officials like Mayor West have drawn an important lesson from a previous generation’s civil rights success. “Government acts of discrimination against classes of people is wrong,” he said. For Mr. Frankel, 28, a Harvard Law alum, “Since I started at Kramer Levin, I’ve been involved in the Lambda Legal project, writing memos for a couple of years. It was fun taking them off the shelf and updating them for this case.” “No question, it’s exciting to be working on this at Paul Weiss,” said Mr. Pravda, 28, also a Harvard Law graduate. “In law school, it’s hard to envision that some day you could be out there litigating important new constitutional issues.” “The moment has arrived, and the world will be transformed by the tremendous impetus of youth,” said Mr. Trachtman, Kramer Levin’s pro bono program manager as well as a litigation partner. In past years, Mr. Trachtman has done volunteer legal work in matters of school desegregation, Social Security disability rights and free speech. To the new cause of same-sex marriage, he added, “You don’t have to be gay to be passionate about this as a civil rights issue.” The sentiments of Mr. Trachtman and the other lawyers are more than gratifying to gay attorney Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal. “I am, truly, surprised by how much has happened so quickly. What it says is, people are ready and they’re all over the place and nobody can say, ‘Oh, it’s just San Francisco,’” he said. “This is a heartstring issue, and I guess that’s what’s done it.” Mr. Pravda offered further perspective. “It’s hard for us today to realize that not long ago, there was a total prohibition of interracial marriage,” he said. With respect to same-sex marriage, he added, “Some day � soon � we’ll look back and wonder what the big deal was.”

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