But something else made the case significant: The group that filed the lawsuit was the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay advocacy organization.
And the policy U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips ruled unconstitutional? It was the brainchild of the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who nominated her. Seventeen years after Clinton hashed out a compromise with conservatives that has led to the ouster of nearly 14,000 service members, could Republicans take credit for allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly?
The Grand Old Party as the Gay New Party? Crusaders for gay liberation? Consider:
- In July, a federal judge in Massachusetts who was appointed by Richard Nixon ruled that part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act -- a law signed by Clinton -- is unconstitutional because it violates the equal-protection rights of legally married same-sex couples in the state who are denied federal marriage-based benefits. On Tuesday, the Obama Justice Department announced it would appeal the decision.
- In August, a conservative judge who was first nominated to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan struck down California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage. The plaintiffs' co-counsel was Republican lawyer Ted Olson. The same Ted Olson argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 that cleared George W. Bush's path to the presidency, and he is likely to return to the high court to advocate for the right of gay couples to marry.
- As a vice presidential candidate a decade ago, Dick Cheney gave proof to research showing those with gay relatives are more tolerant when he said during a vice presidential debate that states should decide who can marry. Cheney, whose daughter Mary has two children with her longtime lesbian partner, more recently said it is time to reconsider the military's policy on gays.
- The wife and daughter of Republican Sen. John McCain have publicly disagreed with his conservative stands on gay rights. Cindy McCain taped her mouth shut for a gay marriage ad campaign, while their daughter Meghan has said the military should repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
- Former first lady Laura Bush has agreed to disagree with her husband on gay marriage, saying committed same-sex couples "ought to have, I think, the same sort of rights that everyone has."
- Former Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman this summer came out and now spends his time as an activist for gay marriage.
- Conservative guru Glenn Beck has said gay marriage is not a threat to the America, and right-wing commentator Ann Coulter recently appeared at an event dubbed Homocon 2010 to mark the one-year anniversary of a new gay conservative group, GOProud.
- In her new book "Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family," never-married former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismisses rumors that she is a lesbian but nonchalantly includes a photo of herself with her best friend at Stanford, Coit "Chip" Blacker, and his "long-term partner" Louis Olave, who helped care for her ailing father while she was campaigning with George W. Bush.
Said Alex Nicholson, executive director of the gay group Servicemembers United and the sole plaintiff in the the case brought by the Log Cabin Republicans: "There's definitely a pro-equality segment of the Republican Party and the conservative movement that is underappreciated by most and unseen largely until big victories for them like this one."
Party Line Votes Die Hard
Most of the Republicans who have spoken out in favor of gay rights do not hold elected office. With a few exceptions such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who speaks often about how a lesbian nurse cared for her husband after he was wounded in Vietnam, GOP lawmakers have minded the party's religiously conservative base and voted against expanding gay rights.
Last month, Republicans in the Senate voted along party lines to block repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." In an earlier House vote, just five Republicans joined the Democratic majority to end the policy.
The issue is likely to come up again when Congress returns for a lame-duck session after the election. Obama administration officials have said they want to see the Pentagon's much-anticipated report on how to implement repeal, due Dec. 1, before putting the policy up for a vote on Capitol Hill. Democrats want to reintroduce it before next year when Republican gains, including a possible majority in one or both houses of Congress, are likely to send the legislation back to committee oblivion.
A Pew Research Center poll released last week showed that partisan differences in support for gay marriage remain wide even as overall approval edges up. Three out of four conservative Republicans oppose allowing same-sex couples to marry. But among moderate and liberal Republicans, 41 percent and 51 percent, respectively, favor gay marriage.
The intraparty split is reflected in mixed messages from Republican leaders.
Sen. Jim DeMint has stood by remarks he made in 2004 that openly gay people, as well as unmarried pregnant women, should not teach in public schools.
But after New York Republican candidate for governor Carl Paladino said he didn't want children "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option," he partly walked back his words by calling discrimination against gays "horrible." Adding to the confusion: a defense by Coulter, who herself has come under fire by conservatives for her outreach to gays.
LaSalvia, whose group got a mixed welcome when it set up a booth at February's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, suggested gays' embrace of conservative values is a new twist in the culture wars.
That so many same-sex couples want to marry, he said, "is the ultimate conservative victory" after the promiscuity among gay men in the 1970s before the AIDS epidemic hit.
And there is more than a little irony in the fact that gays are fighting so hard to be accepted in one of America's most conservative institutions, a place some liberal opponents of the Vietnam War tried to avoid by pretending they were gay.
Polls consistently show the transformation reflects a generational change.
"The GOP is in an awkward spot -- one group of their voters make anti-GLBT policy a litmus test but younger voters have moved on these issues," said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University professor who has written on politics and gay rights. "Many have objected to the conservative policy in this area quietly for years, but as public attitudes shift they are less willing to stay silent."
The tea party has tried to keep its focus on fiscal issues, but there are signs that social concerns are becoming more prominent within the grassroots of the movement. Nearly half of tea partiers identify themselves as Christian conservatives.
To Matt Barber of the Liberty Counsel, an affiliate of the late evangelist Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, movement leaders like Dick Armey and Americans for Taxpayer Reform President Grover Norquist -- a straight member of GOProud's board -- are frauds.
"Gay conservatives simply don't exist," he said. "Homosexual activist Republicans are really socio-liberal libertarians."
Glenn Beck, he said, is "flat-out wrong." Outspoken Republicans like Meghan McCain may belong to the party but, "a Republican does not a conservative make," he said.
"That leg has become in their mind essentially kindling wood. They've thrown it into the fire," Barber said. "They are playing into the left's divide-and-conquer scheme."
Not that those on the left are rushing to throw their lot in with the GOP, no matter how frustrated and impatient they have become with President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders for dragging their feet on their issues.
"To avoid ceding the credit and honor of championing this surging equal rights cause to the Republicans, the Democrats -- who've provided the bulk of the votes for marriage and who have a majority in favor -- are clearly going to have to step up their leadership in support of the position everyone believes they actually hold, even if certain of their leaders can't seem to say the word," Evan Wolfson of the gay rights group Freedom to Marry said in an e-mail.
"While the new champions among conservatives are certainly welcome and significant, most Republican office-holders and candidates for now at least remain a serious threat and roadblock to the work of ending anti-gay discrimination," he said. "Democratic leaders too often lack the courage of their convictions, while the bulk of the Republican Party lacks the convictions of their most forward-looking leaders' courage."