Supreme Court sets stage for historic gay rights ruling


MARK SHERMAN, AP

The court announced Friday it will take up gay-rights cases that ask it to overturn bans in four states and declare for the entire nation that people can marry the partners of their choice, regardless of gender. The cases will be argued in April, and a decision is expected by late June.

The court chose not to decide this issue in 2013, even as it struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law that paved the way for a wave of lower court rulings across the country in favor of same-sex marriage rights.

But the momentum has shifted dramatically in the United States in recent months in favor of gay marriage.

America has seen a rapid and dramatic change in public opinion and laws regarding same-sex marriage. State legislatures have been approving it and, often when they haven’t, courts have stepped in to allow it. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 of the 50 U.S. states, meaning 70 percent of Americans now live in states where it is legal.

Until now, the Supreme Court, the only tribunal that can reconcile inconsistent rulings among federal appellate courts, has avoided settling the issue for the entire U.S.

“The country is ready for the freedom to marry today,” said James Esseks, leader of the American Civil Liberties Union’s same-sex marriage efforts.

The appeals before the court come from gay and lesbian plaintiffs in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The federal appeals court that oversees those four states upheld their same-sex marriage bans in November, reversing pro-gay rights rulings of federal judges in all four states. It was the first, and so far only, appellate court to rule against same-sex marriage since the high court’s 2013 decision.

One of the plaintiffs, James Obergefell, said he was crying “tears of joy and sadness” after the court accepted his appeal. In 2013, Obergefell flew to Maryland with his dying partner, John Arthur, so they could marry before Arthur’s death. The couple sued to force Ohio to list Arthur as married on his death certificate, which would allow the men to be buried next to each other. Arthur died 15 months ago.

“I can’t wait to walk up those steps and have the Supreme Court understand that we’re just like everyone else,” Obergefell said.