On March 4, 2008, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of the state's laws prohibiting gay marriage. California is not alone in grappling with the contentious issue of whether to grant gay and lesbian couples the right to wed. For more than 15 years, state courts have considered and ruled on this question based on their understanding of prior rulings on privacy rights and related constitutional issues. The only common outcome of these varying decisions seems to be that they have helped to stoke a nationwide social and political debate, one that is still raging in state legislatures, churches and homes throughout the country. (See An Overview of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate.)
In these battles, proponents of same-sex unions argue that marriage is one of the most fundamental privileges afforded to a citizen and that the government therefore may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in granting the rights and benefits that accompany this important institution. Opponents counter that marriage has traditionally included one man and one woman and that the government should accommodate the majority's desire to preserve this tradition. (See A Stable Majority: Most Americans Still Oppose Same-Sex Marriage.)
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet directly addressed this issue, several state supreme courts have done so, yielding mixed results. The most favorable ruling for same-sex marriage supporters was a 2003 decision by the highest court in Massachusetts, which held that the state constitution guarantees an absolute right to marry someone of the same gender. This decision ignited a national debate on the meaning of marriage, leading both the federal government and many states to seek to pass constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, state supreme courts continue to wrestle with whether their constitutions guarantee such unions.
Read the full legal backgrounder From Griswold to Goodridge: The Constitutional Dimensions of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.