US Supreme Court to rule on gay marriage

Updated: 2013-06-26 14:06


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WASHINGTON -- America's top court was expected to deliver rulings on Wednesday in two high-profile cases with national implications on gay marriage, an issue that stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere.

At 10 am (1400 GMT), the nine justices of the US Supreme Court were due to convene in Washington to issue rulings in the last three cases of its current session, two of them on same-sex marriage.

The court was due to rule on the constitutionality of a federal law that denies benefits to same-sex married couples and a California state law that bans gay marriage. Those cases, argued in March, could shape the debate over whether gay men and women should have the right to marry.

There are many possible outcomes, ranging from a broad decision proclaiming a fundamental right for gays to marry, which most experts say is unlikely, to more narrow decisions that are limited in scope.

Both cases came before the court with opinion polls showing growing support among Americans for gay marriage but division among the 50 states. Now, 12 states recognize it; more than 30 states prohibit it; and others have laws somewhere in-between.

The federal case concerns the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which limits the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal benefits. It permits benefits such as Social Security survivor payments and federal tax deductions only for married, opposite-sex couples, not for legally married same-sex couples.

President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996 after it passed Congress with only 81 of 535 lawmakers opposing it. Clinton, a Democrat, said earlier this year that times had changed since then and called for the law to be overturned.

The DOMA case before the court focuses on whether Edith Windsor of New York, who was married to a woman, should get the federal estate tax deduction available to heterosexuals when their spouses pass away.

Windsor's marriage to Thea Spyer was recognized under New York law, but not under the federal law. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was forced to pay federal estate taxes because the federal government would not recognize her marriage. She sued the government, seeking a $363,000 tax refund.

President Barack Obama's administration initially defended the law but in 2011 Attorney General Eric Holder said the law was unconstitutional. The administration asked the Supreme Court to strike the law down. During oral arguments in March, it appeared the justices may be poised to do so. Obama is the first sitting president to support gay marriage.

The California case involves a state ballot initiative, called Proposition 8, which was approved by voters in 2008 just months after the state's high court said gay marriages could proceed.

A federal judge struck the law down in 2010, saying it violated the US Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. Proponents of the ban appealed, setting in motion the journey to the Supreme Court.

The two couples who filed suit were Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, from Berkeley, and Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami, who live in Burbank.

The cases are United States v. Windsor, US Supreme Court, No. 12-307 and Hollingsworth v. Perry, US Supreme Court, No, 12-144.