The U.S. Supreme Court will wade into the emotional fray over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, for the first time agreeing to hear challenges to state and federal laws defining marriage as between only a man and woman.
The high court has accepted two gay marriage cases for its spring term, it said Friday (December 7). One case, out of New York, concerns whether the federal government can deny benefits to gay couples married in states that allow same-sex marriage. It will also review California's ban on same-sex marriage.
The announcement, which comes one month after three states voted to legalize same-sex marriages and as national public opinion rapidly shifts on the issue, sets up the possibility — but not the certainty — that the justices will resolve some of the constitutional questions rooted in the dispute.
“Each side gained the opportunity to make sweeping arguments, for or against such marriages,” Tom Goldstein, publisher of SCOTUSblog, wrote Saturday. “But the Court left itself the option, at least during the current Term, of not giving real answers, perhaps because it lacks the authority to do so.”
Defense of Marriage Act
The court will hear a challenge to the federal government's Defense of Marriage Act, the 16-year-old law that denies marriage benefits to any same-sex couple, including those whose marriages are considered legal in some states.
Several lower courts have struck down the law, saying it discriminates against gay Americans. Some states, including Connecticut, New York and Vermont, have objected, too, arguing the law violates couples' rights and states' right to regulated marriage. The law effectively “un-marries” couples whose marriages are recognized in those states, the states say.
The case before the Supreme Court centers on Edith Windsor, a lesbian widow whose marriage was recognized in New York. She was made to pay $360,000 in federal taxes to inherit her wife's estate. Had Windsor been married to a man, she would have inherited the husband's estate untaxed.
In October, a federal appeals court in New York ruled in Windsor's favor, saying gay Americans are a “politically powerless minority” that merits protection. That court granted a level of review called heightened scrutiny, which requires the government to justify treating one group differently from others.
The House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group has stepped in to defend the law after the Obama administration announced it would no longer do so. The group contends the act furthers several government interests, including creating a uniform definition of marriage, limiting financial incentives doled out to couples, preserving a “traditional understanding of marriage” and advancing “responsible childrearing.”
The court also will consider whether to uphold California's ban on gay marriage, following a lower court's ruling that it is unconstitutional.
In 2008, a California Supreme Court decision granted gay residents the right to marry, but voters quickly took away that option. That November, they passed Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between a man and woman.
Last February, however, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled the amendment unconstitutional. That ruling was narrow, focusing only on the fact that the measure took away a right the state court had sanctioned.
“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
Gay marriage opponents say they welcome the chance for that decision to be overturned.
“We believe it is a strong signal that the Court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8,” said John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization on Marriage, a group that has spent millions of dollars fighting same-sex marriage. “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.”
Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. That includes last month's additions of Maine, Maryland and Washington.