The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider four same-sex marriage cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The cases will be consolidated and heard together. They will hear 2-1/2 hours of oral arguments in April and issue a ruling before the current term ends in late June.
The new challenges to gay marriage bans are destined to become even more of a landmark than those decided by the court in 2013 — United States v. Windsor, which forced the federal government to recognize gay marriages, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which made California the 13th state to allow them.
Those rulings did not resolve the main questions in the debate: whether gays and lesbians have a Constitutional right to marry and whether states have the right to ban same-sex marriage.
The justices had hinted that they were waiting for a split among federal appellate courts before hearing any of the cases. This indeed happened when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld four states’ marriage bans in November.
The justices, in their order, are asking the legal teams to limit their presentations to two very specific questions: 1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) 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?
Lyle Denniston, of SCOTUSblog and a pundit on the Court, said the Court was focusing on the core Constitutional issues raised by same-sex marriage laws.
“Although the Court said explicitly that it was limiting review to the two basic issues, along the way the Justices may have to consider what constitutional tests they are going to apply to state bans, and what weight to give to policies that states will claim to justify one or the other of the bans,” he wrote.
“After decades of debate and litigation, we have made the case for the freedom to marry already; the justices—like the American people—no doubt already know the answer, and it’s time now to bring the country to national resolution,” Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said before the court announced that it would hear the appeal. “Every day that marriage is denied is a day of injury, indignity and injustice…it is urgent that the Court affirm the freedom to marry and equality under the law nationwide without further delay and without leaving any family or state out.”
Marriage equality supporters need at least one of the five conservative justices on the bench to side with all four of the liberal justices in a ruling declaring bans on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional in order for marriage equality to become law of the land nationwide.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes says that his office will file an amicus brief with the court before the cases are heard.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court of the United States has chosen to grant Certiorari, review briefs and hear arguments regarding a state’s authority to define marriage and that this process will provide all citizens with clarity and resolution on an issue of such importance,” Reyes said in a a statement.
Equality Utah is hopeful that the Court will rule in favor of marriage equality.
“This is a defining moment for gay Americans. All gay and lesbian couples deserve the freedom to marry who they love. We look forward to the Supreme Court determining once and for all that LGBT Americans do enjoy equal protections under the law,” Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said in a statement.
Same-sex couples can marry in 36 states, most recently including Florida, but cannot in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, along with 10 other states.