The Supreme Court dove into a historic debate on gay rights Tuesday that could soon lead to resumption of same-sex marriage in California, but the justices signaled they may not be ready for a major national ruling on whether America’s gays and lesbians have a right to marry.
The court’s first major examination of gay rights in 10 years continues today, when the justices will consider the federal law that prevents legally married gay couples from receiving a range of benefits afforded straight married people.
The issue before the court Tuesday was more fundamental: Does the Constitution require that people be allowed to marry whom they choose, regardless of either partner’s gender?
The fact that the question was in front of the Supreme Court at all was startling, given that no state recognized same-sex unions before 2003 and 40 states still don’t allow them.
There is no questioning the emotions the issue stirs. Demonstrators on both sides crowded the grounds outside the court, waving signs, sometimes chanting their feelings.
Inside, a skeptical Justice Samuel Alito cautioned against a broad ruling in favor of gay marriage precisely because the issue is so new.
“You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cellphones or the Internet? I mean, we do not have the ability to see the future,” Alito said.
Indeed, it was clear from the start of the 80-minute argument in a packed courtroom, that the justices, including some liberals who seemed open to gay marriage, had doubts about whether they should even be hearing the challenge to California’s Proposition 8, the state’s voter-approved gay marriage ban.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the potentially decisive vote on a closely divided court, suggested the justices could dismiss the case with no ruling at all.
Such an outcome would almost certainly allow gay marriages to resume in California but would have no impact elsewhere.
There was no majority apparent for any particular outcome, and many doubts were expressed by justices about the arguments advanced by lawyers for the opponents of gay marriage in California, by the supporters and by the Obama administration, which is in favor of same-sex marriage rights.
The administration’s entry into the case followed President Barack Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage.
On one hand, Kennedy acknowledged the recentness of same-sex unions, a point stressed repeatedly by Charles Cooper, the lawyer for the defenders of Proposition 8. Cooper said the court should uphold the ban as a valid expression of the people’s will and let the vigorous political debate over gay marriage continue.
But Kennedy pressed him also to address the interests of the estimated 40,000 children in California who have same-sex parents.
“They want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?” Kennedy said.
Yet when Theodore Olson, the lawyer for two same-sex couples, urged the court to support such marriage rights everywhere, Kennedy feared such a ruling would push the court into “uncharted waters.”
The justice, whose vote usually decides the closest cases, also made clear he did not like the rationale of the federal appeals court that struck down Proposition 8, even though it cited earlier opinions in favor of gay rights that Kennedy had written.
That appeals court ruling applied only to California, where same-sex couples briefly had the right to marry before the state’s voters in November 2008 adopted Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Several members of the court also were troubled by the Obama administration’s main contention that when states offer same-sex couples civil union rights of marriage, as California and eight other states do, they also must allow marriage.
The other states are: Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island.