WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court will take up California’s ban on same-sex marriage, a case that could give the justices the chance to rule on whether gay Americans have the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals.
The justices said Friday they will review a federal appeals court ruling that struck down the state’s gay marriage ban, though on narrow grounds. The San Francisco-based appeals court said the state could not take away the same-sex marriage right that had been granted by California’s Supreme Court.
The court also will decide whether Congress can deprive legally married gay couples of federal benefits otherwise available to married people. A provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act limits a range of health and pension benefits, as well as favorable tax treatment, to heterosexual couples.
The cases probably will be argued in March, with decisions expected by late June.
Gay marriage is legal, or will be soon, in nine states — Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington — and the District of Columbia. Federal courts in California have struck down the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but that ruling has not taken effect while the issue is being appealed.
Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved gay marriage earlier this month. But 31 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. North Carolina was the most recent example in May. In Minnesota earlier this month, voters defeated a proposal to enshrine a ban on gay marriage in that state’s constitution.
The biggest potential issue before the justices comes in the dispute over California’s Proposition 8, the state constitutional definition of marriage, as between one man and one woman, that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians could marry.
The case could allow the justices to decide whether the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection means that the right to marriage cannot be limited to heterosexuals.
A decision in favor of gay marriage could set a national rule and overturn every state constitutional provision and law banning same-sex marriages. A ruling that upheld California’s ban would be a setback for gay marriage proponents in the nation’s largest state, although it would leave open the state-by-state effort to allow gays and lesbians to marry.
The gay marriage supporters who prevailed in the lower courts urged the Supreme Court to stay out of the case and allow same-sex unions to resume in the nation’s largest state. Even some gay rights activists worried that it was too soon in the evolution of views toward same-sex marriage to ask the justices to intervene and declare that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as heterosexuals. But Theodore Olson, the Washington lawyer who represents Californians who sued over Proposition 8, said he will argue that there is a “fundamental constitutional right to marry for all citizens.”
Opponents of gay marriage said Friday they are heartened by the Supreme Court’s action.
“We believe that it is significant that the Supreme Court has taken the Prop 8 case. 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,” said John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage and a law professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
On the other side of the issue, advocates for same-sex unions said the court could easily decide in favor of gay marriage in California without issuing a sweeping national ruling to overturn every state prohibition on marriage.
In striking down Proposition 8, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals crafted a narrow ruling that said because gay Californians already had been given the right to marry, the state could not later take it away. The ruling studiously avoided any sweeping pronouncements.