The US Supreme Court has agreed to wade into the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, raising the possibility that gay and lesbian couples could be granted a federal right to wed.
For proponents, who celebrated the decision, same-sex marriage has become the most important civil rights issue of the time. Its inclusion on the court docket will be seen as a possible opportunity to expand across the country the right of same-sex couples to marry – one that exists in nine states including Massachusetts, New York, Iowa, Maryland, as well as Washington DC.
The announcement came at a time when Americans’ views about gay marriage have dramatically changed. Many are now far more accepting of same-sex marriage but is a hotly debated issue that will inspire strong reactions across the political spectrum. It will serve as a test of the court’s principles for conservatives, who were angered by the this year’s ruling to uphold the Obama administration’s 2010 healthcare law.
President Barack Obama announced his own change of mind on the issue when he got behind same-sex marriage in May, reflecting the nation’s evolving social mores.
The Supreme Court said it would hear two cases related to the issue. Decisions are expected in June.
Hollingsworth v Perry is a California case that gained public attention, partly because of the lawyers who teamed up to argue in favour of the rights of same-sex marriage: Ted Olson and David Boies, who were on opposite sides of the Supreme Court case Bush v Gore that determined the 2000 presidential election.
At the centre of their case is the question of whether it was legal for California voters to overrule an earlier decision by the state’s Supreme Court to make same-sex marriage legal when it voted on an initiative known as Proposition 8.
The federal Supreme Court has a broad scope. It could decide to rule on the narrow question facing California and either affirm a lower-court ruling or deny it in that state alone.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the court could determine, for example, to let the political process address the issue, as it has in other states where same-sex marriage proposals have appeared on the ballot.
But judges could also address the issue more broadly in a decision that would have ramifications across the country.
“I don’t know if there are five votes for a very broad ruling that the 14th amendment of the constitution requires equal protection under the law [in support of gay marriage],” Mr Tobias said.
The second case is about a challenge to a federal law called the Defense of Marriage Act that forces the federal government to deny benefits to same-sex couples who are married in states where the unions are allowed. While it is customary for the White House to defend in court all current laws, the Obama administration made a decision in 2011 to stop defending the federal law.
Legal experts said the fate of same-sex marriage could come down to the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is considered to be the high court’s “swing vote” and has previously supported gay rights.
Mr Obama’s latest addition to the court, Elena Kagan, is expected to recuse herself from the second case because of her earlier work as a solicitor-general in the administration.