WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for its most significant ruling on gay rights, the U.S. Supreme Court said Friday that it would resolve the two-decade legal battle over same-sex marriage.
The justices agreed to hear cases from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, where state officials are defending laws that limit marriage to a man and a woman. The court set aside 2 1/2 hours of arguments in April -- compared with the usual hourlong session -- with a decision expected by the end of June.
The outcome could be a landmark ruling giving gay and lesbian couples a right to marry nationwide under the Constitution's protections of individual liberty and equal treatment.
In an order released yesterday, the court said it would decide two civil rights questions that have deeply divided Americans: Does the 14th Amendment include a right to marry for same-sex couples, and must states recognize same-sex marriages that took place in other states? The issue "is coming to the court at the right time and the right circumstances," said Mary Bonauto, a Boston attorney who won the first state ruling for gay marriage, in Massachusetts in 2003.
The timing is no accident. The justices, both liberal and conservative, have long been wary of rulings that upset the settled expectations of the American public. The court didn't protect interracial marriage until 1967, long after many states had already legalized it.
Likewise, the justices opted in recent years to avoid ruling directly on gay marriage, giving more time for the idea to be accepted and legalized by states.
By taking the case now, the justices put themselves in position to ratify a profound social change they helped set in motion, but which they did not anticipate would occur so quickly.
Opinion polls in the last year have shown that a solid majority of Americans support a right to marry for same-sex couples. Currently, gay marriage is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a gay marriage advocacy group, said the court's "decision today begins what we hope will be the last chapter in our campaign to win marriage nationwide."