Supreme Court Could Settle Marriage Equality Fight Once and For All

A sign at rally for marriage equality outside the US Supreme Court in 2013. (Photo: Victoria Pickering/flickr/cc)

Supreme Court Could Settle Marriage Equality Fight Once and For All

Nation's highest court has said it will hear arguments over pending cases in several states later this year. The outcome, whichever way it goes, will have huge ramifications for marriage equality.

An announcement by the U.S. Supreme Court late afternoon Friday that it will hear arguments regarding several gay marriages cases brought in four different states is being treated as a momentous development in the fight for complete marriage equality nationwide.

The Court's announcement on Friday granted review of petitions from a variety of cases in the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee that sought to challenge state bans on same-sex marriage. After a ruling by Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals last year overturned lower court rulings which struck down the bans in those states, the Supreme Court had no choice, according to experts, but to take up the cases in order to settle the conflict set up Sixth Circuit. The Supreme Court's decision to hear all the cases at once now sets the stage for what could be a final resolution regarding complete marriage equality for same-sex couples nationwide. The hearing of oral arguments is expected to take place in April.

According to reporting by The Advocate:

The same-sex couples who filed the initial lawsuit in Michigan were excited by the new development.

"We are now that much closer to being fully recognized as a family, and we are thrilled," said April DeBoer, one of the plaintiffs in the Michigan case. "This opportunity for our case to be heard by the Supreme Court gives us and families like ours so much reason to be hopeful."

"Our families, communities and the schools all see us as a family," added DeBoer's partner, Jayne Rowse, in a statement from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. "We juggle our jobs and a houseful of children and wouldn't have it any other way. Soon, we hope to have the same recognition and share the same protections and responsibilities as all other families."

Due to the varying specifics of the cases that will now be folded into one review by the Court, the order released by the justices instructed the legal teams who will present arguments to focus on two key questions which will set the basis for the court's final ruling:

1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?

Marriage equality and civil liberties advocates reacted positively to the news.

"We are thrilled the court will finally decide this issue," said James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project. "The country is ready for a national solution that treats lesbian and gay couples fairly. Every single day we wait means more people die before they have a chance to marry, more children are born without proper protections, more people face medical emergencies without being able to count on recognition of their spouses. It is time for the American values of freedom and equality to apply to all couples."

Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, also applauded the Supreme Court's decision to hear the cases. "Today begins what we hope will be the last chapter in our campaign to win marriage nationwide," he said.

"After a long journey and much debate, America is ready for the freedom to marry," Wolfson continued. "But couples are still discriminated against in 14 states, and the patchwork of discrimination harms families and businesses throughout the country. We will keep working hard to underscore the urgency of the Supreme Court's bringing the country to national resolution, so that by June, all Americans share in the freedom to marry and our country stands on the right side of history."

Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, also welcomed the development even as she expressed caution when it came to speculating on how the members of the Court might actually rule. "The justices have an opportunity to bring marriage equality to the entire nation -- and to end the pain of millions of same-sex couples who are currently denied the right to get married in the state they call home. This truly is history in the making -- the question is: will the justices decide to be on the right side of history?"

According to the New York Times:

The decision came just months after the justices ducked the issue, refusing in October to hear appeals from rulings allowing same-sex marriage in five states. That decision, which was considered a major surprise, delivered a tacit victory for gay rights, immediately expanding the number of states with same-sex marriage to 24, along with the District of Columbia, up from 19.

Largely as a consequence of the Supreme Court's decision not to act, the number of states allowing same-sex marriage has since grown to 36, and more than 70 percent of Americans live in places where gay couples can marry.

The cases the Supreme Court agreed to hear on Friday were brought by some 15 same-sex couples in four states. The plaintiffs said they have a fundamental right to marry and to be treated as opposite-sex couples are, adding that bans they challenged demeaned their dignity, imposed countless practical difficulties and inflicted particular harm on their children.

The pace of change on same-sex marriage, in both popular opinion and in the courts, has no parallel in the nation's history.

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