By Mark O’Brien
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
WASHINGTON, United States — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider, during its current term, two challenges to federal and state laws that only permit marriage between a man and a woman.
The high court announced on Friday that it would hear a case challenging a federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, as well as a case challenging California’s Proposition 8, or Prop 8, a gay marriage ban that voters approved in 2008.
These cases mark the first time the Supreme Court will consider the issue of same-sex marriage. The hearings are expected to take place in March, with the justices delivering their opinions by the end of June.
The issue has become a politically charged debate in recent years. Just last month, three states joined a small number of states where gay marriage is legal. Voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington passed laws legalizing gay marriage, bringing the total to nine states plus the District of Columbia. Of the other 41 states, 31 have passed constitutional amendments banning it.
And even where it is legal, married same-sex couples do not qualify for many federal benefits because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, only recognizes marriages between a man and a woman.
Edith Windsor was “delirious with joy” upon hearing the Supreme Court would hear her DOMA case, reports The Guardian. Windsor, 83, was forced to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes after her the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer, in 2009 because federal law did not recognize their marriage.
“I think DOMA is wrong for all of the various ways in which it discriminates against same-sex married couples and against gays altogether,” Windsor said. “It’s enormously satisfying and fulfilling and exciting to be where we are now.”
Four lower federal courts and two federal appellate courts have ruled against DOMA. Last October, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court ruling in Windsor’s case that a portion of DOMA was unconstitutional. The provision in question, Section 3, denies gays and lesbians married under state laws benefits such as Social Security survivor payments and the right to file joint federal tax returns.
The Prop 8 case involves a review of California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban. It passed in November 2008, months after a state supreme court ruled that same-sex marriages were legal.
Earlier this year, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Prop 8 was unconstitutional. The reasoning was that California could not take away the right to same-sex marriage after previously allowing it. But the judges’ ruling was narrow; it only affected California and not any other states.
Supreme Court observers said it is unlikely that the justices will recognize a federal right to marriage equality. Instead, many expect the high court’s ruling will be in the same narrow fashion—applying it only to California, regardless of the outcome.
For further information, please see:
The Guardian — US Supreme Court Agrees to Take up Two Gay Marriage Cases — 7 December 2012
Reuters — Supreme Court Takes up Same-Sex Marriage for First Time — 7 December 2012
SCOTUSblog.com — On Same-Sex Marriage, Options Open — 7 December 2012
The Washington Times — High Court Sets up Showdown over Gay Marriage — 7 December 2012