WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court plunged into the contentious issue of gay marriage yesterday when it agreed to take up California’s ban on same-sex unions and a separate dispute about federal benefits for legally married gay couples.
The court’s action gives the justices the chance to say by late June whether gay Americans have the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. Several narrower paths also are open to the justices as they consider both California’s voter-approved Proposition 8 and the provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denies to legally married gay Americans the favorable federal tax treatment and a range of federal health and pension benefits given to heterosexual couples.
The court has embarked on what could be its most significant term involving civil rights in decades. In the area of racial discrimination, the justices already have agreed to decide cases on affirmative action in admission to college and a key part of the Voting Rights Act. The gay marriage cases probably will be argued in March and decisions in all the court’s cases are likely by the end of June.
Yet even as gay marriage is legal, or soon will be, in nine states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont are the others — and the District of Columbia, it is banned by the state constitutions of 31 others. Federal courts in California have struck down the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but that ruling and thus gay unions remain on hold while the issue is being appealed.
The high court’s decision to hear the federal benefit question was a virtual certainty because several lower courts struck down the provision of the 1996 law and the justices almost always step in when lower courts invalidate a federal law.