Divided U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with gay marriage case
(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court appeared sharply divided on Tuesday on whether to legalize gay marriage across the United States, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote, asking skeptical questions but saying same-sex couples can have a “noble purpose” for marrying.
The nine justices peppered lawyers on both sides of the issue with questions in the landmark case over whether the Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry. The oral arguments, scheduled for 2-1/2 hours, continued and were expected to end about 12:30 p.m. (1630 GMT).
Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote in close cases and has a history of backing gay rights, posed tough questions to both sides, giving little indication of how he will vote.
He appeared conflicted about the centuries of history in which marriage has been limited to opposite-sex couples.
“This definition has been with us for millennia, and I think it’s very difficult for this court to say we know better,” Kennedy said.
In remarks that could give some hope to gay marriage supporters, Kennedy cast doubt on some of the rationales that U.S. states have given in favor of restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
At one point Kennedy told attorney John Bursch, arguing in favor of state bans, that his arguments “assume same-sex couples cannot have a more noble purpose” when deciding to marry.
It remained unclear how the court would rule in the case.
A lively crowd estimated at more than 1,000 people, with those favoring legalized gay marriage outnumbering those opposed, gathered outside the white marble courthouse as the justices heard arguments in the case, known as Obergefell v. Hodges.
The justices, taking up a contentious social issue in what promises to be the year’s most anticipated ruling, are due to deliver a decision by the end of June on whether gay marriage will be legal nationwide.
The court’s four liberal justices seemed willing to vote in favor of gay marriage, while the court’s conservatives, including Chief Justice John Roberts, appeared inclined to back the right of states to restrict the definition of marriage.
Roberts gave no sign that he is likely to join the liberals. He, like Kennedy, stressed the swift changes in attitudes to gay marriage and questioned whether it was the court’s role to decide it once and for all.
“Closing the debate can close minds,” Roberts said.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer told lawyer Mary Bonauto, who was arguing in favor of gay marriage: “Suddenly, you want nine people outside the ballot box to require states that don’t want to do it to change what marriage is.”
Bonauto told the court that its recent decisions on gay rights in other areas had created a foundation for same-sex marriage, and she said banning same-sex marriage created a “stain of unworthiness” for gay couples.
CASE CENTERS ON BANS IN FOUR STATES
The arguments center on gay marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, four of the 13 states that currently prohibit it.
Public support for gay marriage has steadily grown in recent years and is particularly strong among younger Americans.
Before gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, it was not permitted in any state. Now it is allowed in 37 states and Washington, D.C.
The arguments were divided into two parts.
The first was on whether the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law mean states must allow gay couples to marry. The second concerned whether states must recognize same-sex marriages occurring out-of-state.
Gay rights activists call same-sex marriage a leading American civil rights issue of this era.
Opponents say same-sex marriage legality should be decided by individual states, not judges. Some opponents argue it is an affront to traditional marriage between a man and a woman and that the Bible condemns homosexuality.
There was a lively debate outside the courthouse.
Gay marriage advocates held up signs with slogans including “Love for all” and “America is ready for freedom to marry.” A smaller but vocal group of people against gay marriage held signs including one calling gay sex sinful and another stating, “Satan rules over all, the children of pride.”
Ruben Israel, a 55-year-old from Los Angeles opposed to gay marriage, said, “We don’t find any male to male marriage in the Bible. There is no woman to woman marriage.”
Darren Nimnicht, 63, and Tom Cicero, 62, a couple from New York who have been married for seven years, joined the demonstration.
“It’s a culmination of ensuring rights throughout the United States that we are lucky enough to have in New York. It’s ensuring our rights to be treated like every other citizen in this country. It’s something every minority is striving for,” Nimnicht said.
President Barack Obama is the first sitting president to support gay marriage. His administration argued on the side of same-sex marriage advocates. He has said he hopes the court issues a ruling preventing states from banning gay marriage. (Additional reporting by David Ingram and Elvina Nawaguna)
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