Court to hear historic gay marriage cases

The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — the federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The court also agreed to hear a lawsuit challenging California's statewide ban on same-sex marriage.

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Supporters of same-sex marriage are optimistic about the chances the court will strike down DOMA, making all marriages equal in the eyes of federal law. It would be an historic ruling, and one of the most significant civil-rights decisions in the court's history.

The challenge to California's Proposition 8 goes a step further, providing the court with an opening to declare that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The justices will consider whether the 14th Amendment bars California from enforcing a law that prevents same-sex couples from marrying.

As usual, the justices did not offer any explanation of why they decided to take the cases. Oral arguments are expected in the spring, with a ruling to follow in the summer. The court traditionally holds its most important decisions until the last day of its term, sometime in June or July.

Justice Anthony Kennedy is seen as likely to side with the court's liberal bloc on DOMA, but his views on Proposition 8 are harder to predict.

Striking down only DOMA, and leaving Proposition 8 intact, would not recognize a right to same-sex marriage, but would leave the issue to the states.

Several states have already begun to recognize same-sex marriage and the success of marriage-equality ballot measures on Election Day was seen as a watershed moment, as opponents of same-sex marriage had long argued that popular opinion was on their side.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) praised the court's decision, calling it "a landmark moment in the history of civil rights in our nation." She also criticized Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for using taxpayer funds to defend DOMA in the courts.

"We remain confident that the justices’ ruling will fall on the side of civil rights and discard DOMA and Prop 8 in the dustbin of history," Pelosi said in a statement.

--This article was first published at 3:22 p.m. and last updated at 4:55 p.m.