Friday, November 30, 2012 by Chantal Valery
The US Supreme Court meets today to decide how it will handle challenges to the status of gay marriages, at a time when thousands of American same-sex couples have already tied the knot.
The court has been asked to judge the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act, which defines a marriage under federal law as a “union between a man and a woman”.
President Barack Obama’s Government does not support this view of marriage and would like the law to be overturned, but conservative campaigners are urging the court to rule that the act is constitutional.
Meanwhile, the federal Government is obliged to enforce a law that prevents it from, according homosexuals, the same immigration, welfare, tax and employee insurance rights as heterosexual couples.
“Everybody recognises it’s time for the Supreme Court to step in,” Thomas Keck, political science professor at Syracuse University, New York, said.
As a country, the US appears to be slowly moving towards tolerating same-sex unions.
Nine of the 50 states and the federal capital district already recognise gay marriages.
A recent opinion poll by the Pew Institute found that 48 per cent of the population accepts the idea, up from 39 per cent four years ago.
And among those to have changed their minds over this period, publicly at least, is Obama himself, who was against homosexual marriage in his 2008 campaign but came out in favour shortly before seeking re-election this year.
Today, the judges will study eight motions concerning the law, and as Justice Ruth Ginsburg has said it is “more than likely” that they will rule on one or more of them before the court’s term ends in June.
Unusually, the federal Government has opted not to defend its own act – which was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton – and Obama is on record as regarding it as discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, Keck warned: “It’s extremely unlikely that there will be a sweeping decision legalising same-sex marriage nationally.”
Instead, the case is likely to concern the federal Government’s right to treat gay couples married by state authorities differently from heterosexual partners in the same position in states that have legalised gay marriage.
“No impact on gays and lesbians in Texas and Mississippi,” Keck said, citing two jurisdictions where conservative Christians dominate the legislature.
Things could change in California, however. A case has been brought by supporters of Prop 8, a referendum that passed in the country’s most populous state in 2008 that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman but which was overturned by a court of appeal.
If the Supreme Court throws out their appeal, California will in effect become the 10th state to permit gay marriage.
But Prop 8 may not be picked up by the judges right away.
Once the court decides which case or cases to address, it will consider rival arguments, and give a judgment, probably in June. (AFP)