The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear appeals in four same-sex-marriage cases, virtually assuring that it will issue a landmark ruling by the end of June on one of the era’s most contentious and fastest-changing social issues.
In accepting the cases — from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee — the stage is set for a final legal battle over whether denying gay couples the ability to legally wed is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The justices are expected to hear oral arguments in April and to decide by the end of June whether every state and U.S. territory must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognize such marriages conducted elsewhere.
A decision in favor of equal marriage rights would take its place in the canon of pivotal cases involving human rights, from Brown v. Board of Education in 1952, which forced desegregation, to Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriages.
“What the Loving case did for interracial marriage, we’re hoping these cases will do for same-sex marriage,” said Dana Nessel, an attorney for suburban Detroit couple April DeBoer and Jane Rowse, whose case is now on the Supreme Court docket.
DeBoer v. Snyder, first filed in January 2012, originally sought to force Michigan to allow both women to be legal parents to their four adopted children. It was expanded later that year to demand the legal right to marry. The couple’s case — and similar ones around the nation — was bolstered in June 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. The 5-4 decision, written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, asserted that discriminating against same-sex couples who wish to wed is a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
That ruling, in United States v. Windsor, kicked off a winning streak for same-sex marriage advocates through the courts, with dozens of federal district judges and three three-judge panels at federal appellate courts concluding that states may not discriminate either. The number of states where gay couples can legally marry climbed from nine to 36 as of Friday. More than 70 percent of Americans now live in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
Federal judges in all four states under the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals — Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee — also struck down marriage bans in those states. However, in November a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit upheld the states’ right to bar same-sex marriage, creating a schism between interpretations of Windsor and making Supreme Court mediation inevitable