The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on California’s Proposition 8, the voter-approved constitutional amendment enacted in 2008 that bars same-sex marriages in that state.
The court announced its decision to hear the case Dec. 7, shortly after 3 p.m., following a private conference.
There also was word that the court would hear at least one challenge to the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of gay marriages.
The court first met privately to discuss which, if any, gay marriage cases to take up on Nov. 30, but that session did not produce any action.
The court met again on Dec. 7, which resulted in news that it will hear a DOMA case and the landmark challenge to California’s anti-gay marriage amendment. Two federal courts — a district court and an appeals court – have said Prop 8 unconstitutional.
In reviewing the Prop 8 case, the Supreme Court will consider whether amendment violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The DOMA case is U.S. v. Windsor, which involves a widow who was penalized by the U.S. government because her deceased wife was a woman, not a man. DOMA defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and refuses to recognize, for federal purposes, the marriage of a same-sex couple. That means married gay couples are denied more than 1,000 benefits and rights associated with civil marriage.
The justices' move means the cases likely will be argued in March or April, with decisions announced by the end of June.
Reaction was swift:
"The moment we have been fighting for has finally arrived," said Adam Umhoefer, the executive director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization behind the legal challenge to Prop 8.
Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry said, "Just moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court set the clock ticking on the important work we need to do to secure our next wave of wins in 2013."
"As clergy members, both Jerry and I know that all of us, regardless who we love, are created in God's image," said the Rev. Roland Stringfellow, who lives in the Bay area and hopes to marry his partner, Jerry Peterson. He added, "Should the court affirm the unconstitutionality of denying couples like us the freedom to marry, this nation will have taken another great step forward in its journey towards recognizing that we are all created equal, with the same rights and responsibilities, and that those rights include marriage."
"Both the federal DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 serve only one purpose: to harm and stigmatize same-sex couples and their children,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign and former executive director of AFER, said, "Extreme right-wing leaders are going to immediately rally their base around today's announcement – claiming the Court can't outpace public opinion.
"Thankfully though a majority of Americans support marriage equality. We have to counteract the other side with one booming, united voice for marriage equality."
Said Jennifer Chrisler of the Family Equality Council, “The Supreme Court’s decision to review these cases represents an historic and significant step forward in the fight for marriage equality for all American families, but especially the more than one million loving and committed parents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender in this country who are raising more than 2 million children.
“While our families are already bound together by love, there is no denying that the freedom to marry will strengthen them,” she continued. “Denying some American families marriage also denies their children some of the basic protections they need in life as well as a sense of enduring security and stability.”
And Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said, "It’s time for the highest court in the land to say that the discriminatory principles of DOMA and Proposition 8 are unacceptable in a country based on liberty and equality and to strike down these harmful measures."
Opponents of gay marriage also wanted a review of the issues by the high court, especially the Prop 8 case. The National Organization for Marriage, a leading funder of anti-gay marriage efforts along with the Catholic Church, said in a news release: "We believe that it is significant that the Supreme Court has taken the Prop 8 case. We believe it is a strong signal that the court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8. That is the right outcome based on the law and based on the principle that voters hold the ultimate power over basic policy judgments and their decisions are entitled to respect."
Gay marriage is legal, or will be soon, in nine states – Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington – and the District of Columbia.
But 31 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage.