U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will decide whether same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the U.S. under the Constitution, setting the stage for a potentially historic ruling.

By Robert Barnes
January 16, 2015 at 7:20 PM

The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will decide a historic question about whether the Constitution requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry no matter where they live or whether states are free to limit wedlock to its traditional definition as a union only between a man and a woman.

The court accepted cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, where restrictions about same-sex marriage were upheld by an appeals court in Cincinnati two months ago. The high court will hold 2 1/2 hours of oral arguments in April and decide the issue by the time the current term ends in June.

The justices ordered that the parties to the cases address two questions in their legal briefs: whether the Constitution requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and whether states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states where they are legal.

Advocates have called same-sex marriage the modern era’s most pressing civil rights issue, and the court’s action could mark the culmination of an unprecedented upheaval in public opinion and the nation’s jurisprudence.

The country’s first same-sex marriage, the result of a Massachusetts court decision, took place less than 11 years ago. Now, more than 70 percent of Americans live in states where same-sex couples are allowed to marry, according to estimates.

The questions raised in the cases that the court will consider this spring were left open in 2013 when the justices last confronted the issue of same-sex marriage. A slim majority said at the time that a key portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act — withholding recognition of same-sex marriages — was unconstitutional and in a separate case allowed same-sex marriages to resume in California.

Since then, courts across the nation — with the notable exception of the Cincinnati appeals court — have struck down a string of state prohibitions on same-sex marriage, many of them passed by voters in referendums. Many of those court decisions compared the prohibitions to the ones on interracial marriage that the Supreme Court struck down in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia.

When the Supreme Court declined to review a clutch of those decisions in October, same-sex marriage proliferated across the country.

Couples may now marry in 36 states and the District. Three in four same-sex couples live in a state where they are allowed to wed, according to estimates by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Public attitudes toward such unions have undergone a remarkable change as well. Polls show that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, which was not sanctioned anywhere in the country at the turn of this young century.

After the court’s announcement Friday afternoon, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that the Obama administration will file a friend-of-the-court brief asking the justices “to make marriage equality a reality for all Americans.”

Those on both sides of the issue agreed that the time had come for the Supreme Court to step in and settle the issue.

“It is time for the 50 million Americans who stood for marriage in 30 states to have their day in court,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. He said his groups expects “an eventual victory for the democratic process, religious liberty and the cherished institution of marriage, which forms the very bedrock of our society.”

But others, including many conservatives, think the outcome is foreshadowed by the court’s action in 2013.

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