Q&A: Issues, possible legal outcomes in marriage equality cases

Nicole Yorksmith holds her children, Orion, ten months, and Grayden, 4, from left to right, as she listens to speakers during a send-off event Friday, April 24, 2015, in support of plaintiffs in gay marriage cases that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Cincinnati. She and her wife Pam are among the 19 men and 12 women whose same-sex marriage cases from those two states, plus Michigan and Tennessee, will be argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 28.

Nicole Yorksmith holds her children, Orion, ten months, and Grayden, 4, from left to right, as she listens to speakers during a send-off event Friday, April 24, 2015, in support of plaintiffs in gay marriage cases that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Cincinnati. She and her wife Pam are among the 19 men and 12 women whose same-sex marriage cases from those two states, plus Michigan and Tennessee, will be argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 28. Tom Uhlman, AP

Nicole Yorksmith holds her children, Orion, ten months, and Grayden, 4, from left to right, as she listens to speakers during a send-off event Friday, April 24, 2015, in support of plaintiffs in gay marriage cases that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Cincinnati. She and her wife Pam are among the 19 men and 12 women whose same-sex marriage cases from those two states, plus Michigan and Tennessee, will be argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 28. Tom Uhlman, AP

Nicole Yorksmith holds her children, Orion and Grayden, as she listens to speakers during a send-off event Friday, April 24, 2015, in support of plaintiffs in gay marriage cases that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Cincinnati. She and her wife Pam are among the 19 men and 12 women whose same-sex marriage cases from those two states, plus Michigan and Tennessee, will be argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 28.

WASHINGTON — Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The decision in United States v. Windsor did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

The number of states allowing same-sex marriage has grown rapidly. As recently as October, just over one-third of the states permitted same-sex marriage. Now, same-sex couples can marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. A look at what is now before the Supreme Court, and the status of same-sex marriage around the country:

WHAT’S LEFT FOR THE SUPREME COURT TO DO AMID ALL THIS CHANGE?

The justices on Tuesday are hearing extended arguments, scheduled to run 2½ hours, in highly anticipated cases about the right of same-sex couples to marry. The cases before the court come from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, all of which had their marriage bans upheld by the federal appeals court in Cincinnati in November. That appeals court is the only one that has ruled in favor of the states since the 2013 Windsor decision.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Two related issues would expand the marriage rights of same-sex couples. The bigger one: Do same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry or can states continue to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman? The second: Even if states won’t allow some couples to marry, must they recognize valid same-sex marriages from elsewhere?

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WHAT ARE THE MAIN ARGUMENTS ON EACH SIDE?

The arguments of marriage-rights supporters boil down to a claim that states lack any valid reason to deny the right to marry, which the court has earlier described as fundamental to the pursuit of happiness. They say state laws that allow only some people to marry violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and make second-class citizens of same-sex couples and their families.

Same-sex couples say that preventing them from marrying is akin to a past ban on interracial marriage, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1967.

The states respond that they have always set the rules for marriage and that voters in many states have backed, sometimes overwhelmingly, changes to their constitutions to limit marriage to a man and a woman. They say a lively national debate is underway and there is no reason for courts to impose a solution that should be left to the political process.

The states also argue that they have a good reason to keep defining marriage as they do. Because only heterosexual couples can produce children, it is in the states’ interest to make marriage laws that encourage those couples to enter a union that supports raising children.

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