WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will take up the issue of gay marriage for the first time, agreeing to rule on a California ballot measure banning the practice and a federal law defining marriage as solely an opposite-sex union.
The cases, which the court will decide by June, loom as a potential turning point on one of the country's most divisive issues. High court review comes as the gay-marriage movement is showing unprecedented momentum, winning victories at the polls in four states this year.
The California dispute will address whether gay marriage is legal in the most populous U.S. state, home to more than 37 million people. The case also gives the justices a chance to go much further and tackle the biggest issue: whether the Constitution guarantees same-sex marriage rights nationwide.
That question is "perhaps the most important remaining civil rights issue of our time," said Theodore Olson, a Washington lawyer leading the legal fight against the California measure.
In addition to the California case, the justices Friday said they will review the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that two federal appeals courts said impermissibly treats legally married gay couples differently than heterosexual couples. DOMA, as the measure is known, blocks gays from claiming the same federal tax breaks and other marriage benefits that opposite-sex spouses enjoy.
The case "is of exceptional practical importance to the United States and to tens of thousands of individuals affected," the Obama administration said in court papers opposing the law while urging the court to review it.
Support for gay nuptials has soared since 1996, when DOMA was approved 342-67 in the House and 85-14 in the Senate before being signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Voters on Nov. 6 approved gay marriage in Washington, Maryland and Maine and rejected a bid in Minnesota to amend the state constitution to bar the practice.