Same-sex marriage may be legal across the U.S. by the summer as the Supreme Court agreed to rule in a case that gay-rights advocates hope will cap a transformational decade.
Eleven years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriages, the justices agreed to consider lifting the bans that remain in place in 14 states, accepting appeals from couples in Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.
The court’s ruling, likely to come in late June, may stand alongside the 1967 decision that said interracial couples had a constitutional right to marry. Whatever the outcome, the case will be a defining moment for Chief Justice John Roberts’s court.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today begins what we hope will be the last chapter in our campaign to win marriage nationwide, and it’s time,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, which advocates for marriage rights.
Both sides urged the Supreme Court to resolve lower-court disagreement. Pro-marriage rulings by four federal appeals courts have helped triple the number of gay-marriage states since 2013. The justices will review the sole appellate decision that said states could restrict marriage to heterosexual unions.
A Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage would be a watershed moment for a movement that as recently as 1996 had support from only 27 percent of the American public, according to a Gallup poll. The latest Gallup survey on the subject, conducted in May, showed 55 percent supporting gay marriage and 42 percent opposing.
A decision against marriage rights might have complicated ramifications. Most of the 36 states that issue gay-marriage licenses do so as a result of court rulings. A Supreme Court decision could nullify those decisions, leaving each state to sort out who can wed while raising questions about the rights of already-married couples.
A hearing is likely in late April. The court said it will hear a total of 2 1/2 hours of arguments. The justices will consider two closely related constitutional questions: whether a state must give licenses to same-sex couples and whether it must recognize out-of-state marriages.
In the case before the justices, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said changes to marriage laws should come from “the customary political processes,” not through the courts.
“When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in a 2-1 decision.
Gay-marriage advocates say the Constitution protects a basic right to wed and bars same-sex couples from being treated differently than heterosexual people.
Gays are being denied “the fundamental freedom and equal right to marry, and their families are deprived of the status, dignity, security and stability that marriage brings,” April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse argued in their appeal in the Michigan case. The two are nurses who have adopted three children, including two with special needs.
Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette argued in court papers that “marriage is an issue left to voters at the state level.”
“This case involves people of good will, sincerely motivated, on both sides,” Schuette said in a statement Friday, adding that he was pleased the court agreed to resolve the issue.
President Barack Obama’s administration will file a brief backing the couples, Attorney General Eric Holder said.
“It is time for our nation to take another critical step forward to ensure the fundamental equality of all Americans, no matter who they are, where they come from, or whom they love,” Holder said in a statement.
The Ohio case involves four couples who want the state to recognize their out-of-state marriages on their children’s birth certificates, along with two widowers seeking to be listed as a spouse on a death certificate.
In Kentucky, the plaintiffs are two couples seeking marriage licenses and four asking for recognition of marriages elsewhere. In the Tennessee case, three couples want the state to recognize their out-of-state marriages.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat who is defending his state’s ban, said the Supreme Court was right to take up the case.
“Kentuckians, and indeed all Americans, deserve clarity and finality on this matter and the assurance that the law will be consistent across state lines,” he said in a statement.
The Supreme Court hinted at support for gay marriage in a 2013 ruling that struck down part of a law that denied federal benefits for same-sex spouses.
Writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Constitution protects gay couples’ “moral and sexual choices.” He rejected many of the justifications for treating gay unions differently from heterosexual ones.
The ruling created a broad sense that it was only a matter of time before the Supreme Court went the final step. Dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia said an eventual ruling legalizing gay marriage was “inevitable.”
The Supreme Court has reinforced that perception by allowing court orders requiring gay marriage to take effect. In the most significant move, the justices in October let stand three federal appeals court decisions, leading to marriage in 11 new states.
Thirty prominent companies had urged the court to rule on gay marriage, including Deutsche Bank AG, eBay Inc., Pfizer Inc., Target Corp., Viacom Inc. and Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News. The companies said in court papers that inconsistent state laws posed a human-resources problem.
The final decision in all likelihood rests with Kennedy, the court’s most frequent swing vote. Though Kennedy often aligns himself with the court’s conservative wing, he has been a champion of gay rights over the past 20 years, writing all three of the court’s most significant rulings.
The cases are Obergefell v. Hodges, 14-556; Tanco v. Haslam, 14-562; DeBoer v. Snyder, 14-571; and Bourke v. Beshear, 14-574.