Should the Supreme Court Weigh In on Gay Marriage?

The Supreme Court announced it would hear two cases next year on same-sex marriage.

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The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear two cases on gay marriage, both of which may have national repercussions. Next year, the court will hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Proposition 8 in California as well as a challenge to the national Defense of Marriage Act.

Laws governing gay marriage vary widely across the country, in absence of any federal declaration on the subject. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, and several other states offer a host of civil union or domestic partnership benefits that grant same-sex couples some of the rights of heterosexuals. Thirty-one states have passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

Next year the court will consider the constitutionality of Prop 8, a referendum passed by California voters in 2008 that revoked the right of gay couples to marry. Earlier that year, the state Supreme Court had ruled it constitutional. The proposition was overturned by a United States district court judge in 2010, and that ruling was upheld in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

The Supreme Court also agreed to hear the case against Defense of Marriage Act, a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 defining marriage as between one man and one woman. It states that the government does not recognize same-sex marriage for federal purposes like joint tax returns or Social Security benefits, and states don't have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. The Obama administration announced in 2011 that it would stop defending the law in court, and it has been found unconstitutional in eight federal courts.

Both gay marriage supporters and opponents celebrated the court's decision to take up the subject. Chairman for the National Organization for Marriage John Eastman saw the decision as a sign the Supreme Court will protect traditional marriage:

We believe it is a strong signal that the court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8 … That is the right outcome based on the law and based on the principle that voters hold the ultimate power over basic policy judgments and their decisions are entitled to respect.

[ See Photos: Couples Line Up at Midnight for Gay Marriage Licenses.]

But Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said there is no denying the country's view on gay marriage is changing:

Think back four years ago … when we filed this case we were only looking at three states in this country that had marriage equality … After this past election, we have now nine states, we have the District of Columbia, we have the president of the United States supporting marriage equality, we have the first victories at the ballot box and now in poll after poll a majority of Americans now say that they support the fundamental right to marry. It is no question where this country is headed.

The cases are likely to be heard in March of 2013, with a possible ruling in June. The Supreme Court's decisions could impact state laws and the legality of same-sex marriage nationwide.

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