The US Supreme Court’s announcement this week that it will take up two key same-sex marriage cases sets the scene now for several months of legal speculation and deeply-felt advocacy.
The speculation has to do with how the high court will act once it begins considering the issue, likely next spring. Who will it hear arguments from? Will it come down strongly and clearly for or against gay marriage? Or will it rule narrowly, sending the cases back to lower courts for further deliberation or perhaps simply letting those courts’ rulings stand?
In other words, same-sex marriage may be the "defining civil rights issue of our time,” as high-profile attorneys Theodore Olson and David Boies argue in their case against California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage. But it will not necessarily be settled broadly for all Americans and for all time as a constitutional issue.
If it’s true that the Supreme Court pays at least some attention to political, cultural, and social trends in the United States, as some legal scholars and historians contend, then momentum seems to be in the direction of approval of same-sex marriage.
Polls show a clear shift in public acceptance, especially among under-30 Americans – 63-35 percent approve, according to a Quinnipiac University poll this past week. For all age groups, Gallup puts the number at 53-46 approval.
One hint at changing attitudes, even among those who continue to believe strongly that marriage must be exclusively between one man and one woman: The Mormon Church (which provided much if not most of the financing and grass-roots support for Prop. 8 in California) just launched a new website “aimed at providing ‘greater sensitivity and better understanding’ among Latter-day Saints with regards to same-sex attraction,” reports the church-owned Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
“The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people,” the church’s position reads. “The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
While rejecting the notion that homosexual relations are a sin, Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, says this move by the church gives gay Mormons hope “through knowing that their families and church leaders are committed to reducing judgment, rejection, and isolation.”
The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, bars federal recognition of gay unions. Several pending cases challenge the provision of DOMA which effectively bars same-sex spouses from receiving federal benefits such as Social Security survivor payments.
A separate appeal asks the justices to decide whether federal courts were correct in striking down California's Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage after it had been approved by state courts.
While nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage – most recently Maine, Maryland, and Washington in ballot measures last month – 37 states have upheld the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, either through constitutional amendments or state statutes.
Both sides in the debate are alert to the importance of this next legal step involving the US Supreme Court.
"The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear these cases is a significant moment for our nation," Roman Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said in a statement. "I pray the Court will affirm the fact that the institution of marriage, which is as old as humanity and written in our very nature, is the union of one man and one woman.”
“Justice is on our side and we won’t stop until equality reaches every corner of our vast country,” Mr. Griffin said in a statement.
Meanwhile, following a three-day waiting period after county officials began issuing marriage licenses in Washington State Thursday, members of the clergy and other authorized officials will begin conducting same-sex weddings there on Sunday.
In Olympia, Washington, Tina Roose and Teresa Guajardo have reserved the state Capitol rotunda for a pre-Christmas wedding ceremony Dec. 15.
As for those who voted against same-sex marriage in her state, Ms. Roose told Reuters she hoped they would be won over "with love."
"You can only change people's attitudes one heart at a time," she said.