WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is wading into the fight over same-sex marriage at a time when public opinion is shifting rapidly in favor of permitting gay and lesbian couples to wed, but 40 states don't allow it.
The court's first major examination of gay rights in 10 years begins Tuesday with a hearing on California's ban on same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, the justices will consider the federal law that prevents legally married gay couples from receiving a range of benefits afforded straight married Americans.
People have been waiting in line — even through light snow — since Thursday for coveted seats for the argument over California's Proposition 8.
The two California couples challenging the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in the nation's largest state are in Washington for the argument and are urging the justices to strike down not just the California provision, but constitutional amendments and statutes in every state that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
They envision the 21st century equivalent of the court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down state bans on interracial marriages.
The Obama administration has weighed in on behalf of the challengers, following President Barack Obama's declaration of support for same-sex marriage last year and his invocation of gay rights at his inauguration in January.
Supporters of Proposition 8 say the court should respect the verdict of California voters who approved the ban in 2008 and let the fast-changing politics of gay marriage evolve on their own, through ballot measures and legislative action, not judicial decrees.
Same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. The states are Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington.
Thirty states ban same-sex marriage in their state constitutions, while ten states bar them under state laws. New Mexico law is silent on the issue.
Polls have shown increasing support in the country for gay marriage. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in mid-March, 49 percent of Americans now favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, with 44 percent opposed.
The California case is being argued 10 years to the day after the court took up a challenge to Texas' anti-sodomy statute. That case ended with a forceful ruling prohibiting states from criminalizing sexual relations between consenting adults.
Justice Anthony Kennedy was the author of the decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, and he is being closely watched for how he might vote on the California ban. He cautioned in the Lawrence case that it had nothing to do with gay marriage, but dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia predicted the decision would lead to the invalidation of state laws against same-sex marriage.
Kennedy's decision is widely cited in the briefs in support of same-sex unions.
The court has several options for its eventual ruling, which is not expected before late June. In addition to upholding the ban and invalidating prohibitions everywhere, the justices could endorse an appeals court ruling that would make same-sex marriage legal in California but apply only to that state. They also could issue a broader ruling that would apply to California and eight other states: Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island. In those states, gay couples may join in civil unions or become domestic partners and have all the benefits of marriage but cannot be married.
One other possibility is a ruling that says nothing about marriage. California's top elected officials, Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, are refusing to defend Proposition 8, and there is a question about whether the Proposition 8 supporters have the right, or legal standing, to defend the measure in court. If the justices decide they do not, the case would end without a high court ruling about marriage, although legal experts widely believe same-sex marriages would quickly resume in California.
The California couples, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier of Berkeley and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo of Burbank, filed their federal lawsuit in May 2009 to overturn the same-sex marriage ban that voters approved the previous November. The ballot measure halted same-sex unions in California, which began in June 2008 after a ruling from the California Supreme Court.
Roughly 18,000 couples were wed in the nearly five months that same-sex marriage was legal and those marriages remain valid in California.
The high-profile case has brought together onetime Supreme Court opponents. Republican Theodore Olson and Democrat David Boies are leading the legal team representing the same-sex couples. They argued against each other in the Bush v. Gore case that settled the disputed 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush.
Opposing them is Charles Cooper, Olson's onetime colleague at the Justice Department in the Reagan administration.
The case is Hollingsworth v. Perry, 12-144.