The Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Same-Sex Couples Can Marry

Nicolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images

Nicolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could end the same-sex marriage debate for the nation.

On Friday, the justices agreed to hear a landmark case that is composed of four challenges to state laws banning same-sex marriage and refusing to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The cases, from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, will be heard together in April, and a ruling will be issued before the SCOTUS’s current term ends in late June.

The court started making steps toward marriage equality with two cases in 2013 — United States v. Windsor, which struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, making it so the federal government has to recognize same-sex marriages, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which made California the 13th state to allow them. But the nature of this new case could make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, as it asks the justices to rule on a constitutional right to marry.

“This is the beginning of the end game on the freedom to marry,” James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project, said to USA TODAY.

What’s the likelihood of a decision in favor of marriage equality?

The majority of the public is now showing support for marriage equality, according to last year’s Gallup poll, in which 55% of respondents approved same-sex marriage. Will SCOTUS match this? The new case will ask the judges to decide on two questions: “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?” and “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?”

This case is an an appeal from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a 2-1 decision ruled that states can set their own definition of marriage and choose which out-of-state marriages to recognize. This was the only federal appeals court to reach that conclusion. “When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers. Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in the decision.

Many have noted that Justice Anthony Kennedy will be key in deciding this case. Kennedy has been working toward equality for the LGBTQ community for 20 years — in 1996, he wrote the opinion in a Colorado dispute over anti-discrimination law and a 2003 decision that struck down a Texas law which criminalized gay sex. Kennedy also wrote the court’s 2013 decisions that struck down part of DOMA and allowed same-sex marriage in California. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the judges are ready to make a decision that has remained contentious in many states.

State status

Marriage equality has come a long way at the state level in since Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by vote during the November 2012 elections. It’s now legal in 36 states, though it remains banned in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Tennessee, and under court review in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, and Texas.

Movement is still happening. Last summer, when Louisiana upheld a ban on same-sex marriage, it was the first move against same-sex marriage after a streak of 21 consecutive federal court decisions overturning bans since June 2013, according to CNN. In October alone, federal judge John Sedwick ruled that Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional; Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal legal recognition of same-sex marriages would cover to Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin; the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Alaska’s request to delay allowing same-sex marriages; and a federal judge ruled same-sex marriage to be legal in Wyoming.

The successes for marriage equality continued in November, as a federal judge ruled a Kansas ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Federal judges in South Carolina and Montana overturned the states’ bans on same-sex marriage. On January 5, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida’s petition to extend the stay on allowing same-sex marriages as the case continues though the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and on January 12, a federal judge ruled South Dakota’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional.

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