The Supreme Court wades into a wide array of same-sex marriage cases today, and its actions could put the crowning touch on a year of major progress for the gay rights movement.
The nine justices must decide which case or cases to consider from among seven on their plate, from the right to marry in California to the receipt of federal marriage benefits from coast to coast.
Though oral arguments and court rulings would be months away, just the choices made in today's closed-door conference could doom California's troubled Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage or put the federal Defense of Marriage Act on the defensive.
The court is virtually certain to take up at least one of the cases involving the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage in federal statutes as between a man and a woman. Lower courts from California to New England have struck down a key section of the law, inviting a Supreme Court decision. The impact of that section has been to deny federal assistance, such as tax exclusions and Social Security survivor benefits, to gay and lesbian couples.
Less certain is whether the justices will consider California's Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008 but since declared unconstitutional by two federal courts. If they don't, gays and lesbians in the nation's largest state will be able to marry again, as 18,000 couples did before the referendum was passed.
The flurry of court action comes three weeks after voters approved same-sex marriage initiatives in Maine, Maryland and Washington, bringing to nine the number of states where those unions are legal, along with the District of Columbia. This year, President Obama declared his support for gay marriage.
"2012 has already been the watershed year in the history of this movement," says Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. a gay and lesbian advocacy group. "It's so clear where this country's headed."
The Supreme Court is closely divided, and five conservative justices often hold sway. To keep the momentum, gay rights groups will need one or more of those justices on their side. Organizations opposed to gay marriage don't think that will happen.
The high court's recent rulings in gay rights cases "do not indicate that the court is anywhere near going in a new direction -- to require government endorsement of alternative lifestyles," says Andrew Pugno, general counsel for ProtectMarriage, which is challenging the court decisions that threw out Proposition 8.
For the court, taking on same-sex marriage could mean a 2012-13 term as controversial as last year's, which was headlined by the 5-4 decision upholding Obama's landmark health care law. The justices have agreed to consider challenges to college affirmative action programs and federal oversight of voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination.
The gay rights cases hinge on the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. Gay rights groups say the laws in question deny that protection to gays and lesbians seeking the same marriage rights as heterosexuals. Those on the other side say there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage and states cannot force the federal government to bless it under more than 1,100 federal statutes.
"The court will want to take this issue and get it resolved," says Paul Clement, a former solicitor general under George W. Bush who is defending the Defense of Marriage Act on behalf of House Republicans. The Obama administration stopped defending it last year.
Clement's predecessor as solicitor general, conservative stalwart Theodore Olson, represents the gay and lesbian plaintiffs fighting California's Proposition 8. He wants the lower court ruling left alone.
"The question whether the states may discriminate against gay men and lesbians in the provision of marriage licenses," Olson wrote in his brief to the high court, "is the defining civil rights issue of our time."
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