Advocates and opponents of gay marriage yesterday welcomed a decision by the US Supreme Court to take up the sensitive issue, saying a ruling by the justices could help settle one of America's thorniest disputes.
The Supreme Court announced it would hear a pair of cases challenging state and federal laws that define marriage to include only unions of a man and a woman.
One of the cases, from California, could establish or reject a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The justices could also rule on narrower grounds that would apply only to marriages in California. The second case, from New York, challenges a federal law that requires the federal government to deny benefits to gay and lesbian couples married in states that allow such unions.
After last month's elections, the number of states authorising same-sex marriage increased to nine. The biggest potential issue before the justices comes in the dispute over California's Proposition 8, the state constitutional ban on gay marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians could marry.
The case could allow the justices to decide whether the US Constitution's guarantee of equal protection means that the right to marriage cannot be limited to heterosexuals.
A decision in favour of gay marriage could set a national rule and overturn every state constitutional provision and law banning same-sex marriages. A ruling that upheld California's ban would be a setback for gay marriage proponents, although it would leave open the state-by-state effort to allow gay marriage.
The other issue the high court would take on involved a provision of the Defence of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of deciding who can receive federal benefits.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, The New York Times