Supreme Court will review Calif. ban on same-sex marriage, federal law targeting gay couples

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is taking a potentially historic look at same-sex marriage by agreeing to hear two cases that challenge governments’ different treatment of gay Americans.

The focus in one case is California’s constitutional amendment that forbids same-sex marriage. The other case deals with a federal law that denies to those who can marry legally the right to obtain federal benefits that are available to heterosexual married couples.

Supreme Court cases often take twists and turns that limit the scope of the eventual decision. But the justices’ action on Friday gives them the chance to say whether gay Americans have the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals.

The court is embarked on what could be its most significant term involving civil rights in decades. In the area of racial discrimination, the justices already have agreed to decide cases on affirmative action in admission to college and a key part of the Voting Rights Act. The gay marriage cases probably will be argued in March and decisions in all the court’s cases are likely by the end of June.

The order from the court extends a dizzying pace of change regarding gay marriage that includes rapid shifts in public opinion, President Barack Obama’s endorsement in May and votes in Maine, Maryland and Washington in November to allow gay couples to marry. Same-sex couples in Washington began picking up marriage licenses on Thursday.

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