The U.S. Supreme Court now has heard arguments in two cases that might have an impact on the legality of gay marriage, one a question challenging Californias ban on same-sex marriage and the other a challenge to part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denies Social Security survivor benefits and tax advantages to survivors of same-sex marriages.
Despite the actions of Republicans in North Carolinas General Assembly who successfully pushed an anti-same-sex marriage state constitutional amendment on the ballot (it was approved by voters) the public sentiment about gay marriage is changing, with more and more polls showing support for it. That is in part generational, with those same polls showing fewer and fewer younger people feel strongly about maintaining laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman.
And politicians who might never have taken a stand publicly in the past are now supporting same-sex marriage. This week, North Carolinas Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan announced her support, a bold and admirable stance.
President Bill Clinton, who in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act, now believes it should be repealed.
The DOMA case is the more important of the two under consideration. Overturning the denial of benefits in the law, for those couples who are legally recognized as married in the nine states that sanction it, could have far-reaching consequences. It might also signal a possibility that more states will join the ranks of those that accept same-sex marriage.
Justices will issue a ruling in June, but reports of arguments presented and questions asked seem to indicate there will be a 4-4 divide with Justice Anthony Kennedy possibly being the deciding vote. Though generally a conservative, Kennedy sometimes sides with the courts more liberal wing on social issues. Seasoned court watchers measure sentiment by justices comments, and Kennedy at one point said, The question is whether or not the federal government, under our federalism scheme, has the authority to regulate marriage.
As same-sex marriage has become legal in some states, residents of those states have seen that it is not a threat to them or to the Republic. Certainly same-sex couples have been a fact of life in the United States and around the world for generations, with many having compatible, long-term relationships that last into old age.
Legal recognition of the reality that exists isnt that big a step. And it would grant to surviving partners of these couples rights they clearly deserve, absent discrimination over issues which really are no one elses business.
A same-sex union also is no threat to those in conventional relationships, to the opposite-sex marriages that continue to be the most common, accepted and popular.
This free country of America has at times in its history been intolerant of marriages between black and white (actually outlawed in some states at one point), and for that matter of different races dining at the same lunch counters. It has, going back to the first waves of immigrants, been divided by difference in religious beliefs, lands of origins and certainly by social status.
And yet somehow, the country has thrived even as many individual prejudices survive.
But the United States does not need to be in the business of sanctioning, legally, discrimination based on sexual orientation any more than it should tolerate that based on race. This ruling could be important as well for same-sex couples in North Carolina who are worried about the effects of the states ill-conceived marriage amendment.
It is no point of pride that conservatives in the General Assembly pushed this divisive issue on voters even as the public sentiment on the issue was changing. It was an ideology-driven debate that even some Republicans wanted no part of.
Marriage is a personal decision, sometimes a religious one, sometimes a social one, with which government should not interfere. The Supreme Court has an opportunity to sustain that belief.