WASHINGTON — After two decades in which gay rights moved from the margin to capture the support of most Americans, the Supreme Court justices this week will decide if now is the time to rule on whether gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.
For justices, the issue is not just what to decide, but when to decide it. The court has been faulted for waiting too long or moving too quickly to recognize constitutional rights.
The justices did not strike down state bans on interracial marriage until 1967, 13 years after they had declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Yet in response to the growing women’s rights movement, the court in 1973 struck down all the state laws restricting abortion, triggering a national “right to life” movement and drawing criticism even from some supporters that the Roe v. Wade ruling had gone too far too fast.
Now, the justices must decide whether to hear an appeal from the defenders of California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 voter initiative that limited marriage to a man and a woman.
At the same session Friday, the court will sift through several appeals to decide whether legally married gay couples have a right to equal benefits under federal law. Appeals courts in Boston and New York have struck down this part of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the justices are almost certain to take up a case to resolve that question.
The Proposition 8 case, known as Hollingsworth vs. Perry, presents justices with the more profound “right to marry” question.
A federal judge in San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 as discriminatory and irrational. In February, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that by a 2-1 vote, ruling the ban on gay marriage violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The majority relied heavily on a 1996 opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy that had struck down an anti-gay initiative adopted by Colorado voters.