Same-sex marriage takes centre stage at the US Supreme Court on Tuesday as the justices begin hearing arguments on the emotionally-charged issue that has split the nation.
Over two days, lawyers from both sides of the debate will present their positions on two cases before the nine-member panel, as supporters and opponents converge on Washington.
The top court will first hear arguments over Proposition 8, a California referendum measure that struck down that state’s same-sex marriage initiative in 2008.
The two couples who are plaintiffs staged a photo opportunity on Monday by inspecting the original handwritten text of the US Constitution on the eve of their day in court.
Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo joined Kris Perry and Sandy Tier on the steps of the National Archives in the US capital, where they posed for photographers but declined to speak to reporters.
They then went in “to view the US Constitution and reflect on the importance of their case for gay and lesbian couples across the nation,” said the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which supports their case.
Then on Wednesday, the court will consider the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law which defines marriage as an act between a man and woman and thus denies married gays and lesbians the same rights and privileges.
The star plaintiff in that case is Edie Windsor, 83, who had to pay US$363,000 in federal estate taxes when her partner of more than 40 years, Thea Spyer whom she had married in Canada in 2007, died in 2009.
Under DOMA, the surviving member of a heterosexual married couple is exempt from such taxes.
Outside the Supreme Court, colour-coded protesters – red for supporters of gay marriage and red, white and blue for opponents – will set out their positions in the court of public opinion.
Opinion polls have repeatedly indicated that a majority of Americans now accept the principle of same-sex marriage, which is legal in nine states plus the District of Columbia but banned or limited in 41 others.
But opposition – spearheaded by social conservatives and backed by the Roman Catholic and evangelical churches – remains strong, with many contending that marriage can only be a union between a man and a woman.
President Barack Obama – who last May became the first US president to publicly say he was in favour of gay marriage – restated his support on Monday through a Twitter account managed in his name by Organising for Action, an advocacy group founded after his re-election.
“Every American should be able to marry the person they love,” read the tweet, which carried the hashtag “LoveIsLove”.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group, is urging supporters to dress in red for a major rally on the Supreme Court steps on Tuesday “to show your support for marriage equality.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage meanwhile plan their own “march for marriage” from the National Mall to the imposing Supreme Court building – with women invited to dress in red, children in white and men in blue.
“We believe it is imperative that political leaders, the media, and the culture see that we care about protecting marriage enough to stand up and march for it,” said its organisers, the National Organisation for Marriage.
Vigils for marriage equality were meanwhile taking place throughout the United States, and the Los Angeles Times reported that a lesbian cousin of Chief Justice John Roberts would be in court on Tuesday.
Roberts, nominated to the court by former president George W Bush, played a key role in the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obama’s controversial health care reform package.
Another critical member of the bench is Anthony Kennedy. A conservative, he has upheld LGBT rights in the Supreme Court, but also warned against democracies depending on their judiciaries to sort out their political rows.