The U.S. Supreme Court seemed to be leaning on Wednesday toward striking down a law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples in a move that would reflect a shift in Americans’ attitudes about gay marriage.
In a second day of oral arguments on same-sex marriage, a majority of the court raised serious concerns with the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, enacted in 1996 under President Bill Clinton.
Arguments over the last two days on the DOMA case and a separate one challenging California’s ban on gay marriage marked the high court’s first foray into a delicate and divisive political, religious and social issue in the United States as polls indicate growing public support for same-sex marriage.
In theory, the cases have the potential for the court to take a significant step toward endorsing gay marriage as it gains support in some parts of the country. Based on the arguments, however, a partial victory for gay rights activists seems more likely than the sweeping declaration of same-sex marriage rights they had hoped for.
In contrast to the ambivalent approach they displayed on Tuesday in arguments about California’s Proposition 8 gay marriage ban, the nine justices seemed willing to address the substantive issue in the DOMA case, while also eyeing procedural questions.
The court is not expected to rule on the two cases until the end of June. If the justices were to strike down DOMA, legally married gay couples would be winners because they would have improved access to federal benefits, such as tax deductions.
Justices gave a strong indication they might resolve the Proposition 8 case on procedural grounds, but even that would be viewed as a win for gay rights activists as same-sex marriages in California would likely resume.
What appears highly unlikely is a sweeping declaration of a right for gay people to marry, a possible option only in the California case.
Overall, a majority of the justices made it clear that, while they might not impede the recent movement among some states toward gay marriage, they were not willing to pave the way either.
Nine states now recognize gay marriage, while 30 states have constitutional amendments banning it and others are in-between.
On several occasions over the two days, the justices’ own remarks illustrated how quickly attitudes have changed in favor of gay marriage.
If the court rules on the states’ rights issue, the justices could strike down the law without deciding the bigger question of whether DOMA violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Various groups are calling for DOMA to be struck down, such as the Business Coalition for DOMA Repeal, whose members include Marriott International Inc, Aetna Inc, eBay Inc , and Thomson Reuters Corp, the corporate parent of the Reuters news agency.
Separately, several conservative justices criticized Obama and his Justice Department for not defending the marriage law in court.
Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether Obama had “the courage of his convictions” for continuing to enforce DOMA while calling it invalid.