The court's action Dec. 7 means that sometime next year -- perhaps in March -- the court will hear oral arguments in the cases and hand down a decision by the end of June.
The justices will consider the constitutionality of two laws. One is the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage for federal purposes as being between a man and a woman. The other is California Proposition 8, a voter-approved constitutional amendment which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
Together, the cases pose a question at the core of the marriage debate: Under the U.S. Constitution can the federal government and the various states define marriage in the traditional sense, thus prohibiting the recognition of gay marriage and other non-traditional unions? Supporters of gay marriage say DOMA and Prop 8 violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
Nine states recognize gay marriage, and 30 have constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The other 11 states define marriage in statutes as between a man and a woman.
If the Supreme Court strikes down California Prop 8, then the 41 states that don't recognize gay marriage could be forced to do so. If it overturns DOMA, then the federal government will be forced to recognize the gay marriages of the nine states where it's legal, something it currently does not.
Lower courts struck down DOMA and Prop 8 in the cases at issue.
California voters passed Prop 8 in 2008 by a margin of 52-48. The amendment reads, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." It reversed a California Supreme Court ruling that had legalized gay marriage.
"Every one of the numerous legal steps we have taken for the past four years has been in anticipation of this moment," Andy Pugno, general counsel for California's ProtectMarriage.com, said in a statement. ProtectMarriage.com is the organization behind Prop 8. "Arguing this case before the Supreme Court finally gives us a chance at a fair hearing, something that hasn't been afforded to the people since we began this fight. We are delighted that the nation's highest court will decide whether to uphold the will of more than seven million Californians who voted to preserve the unique definition of marriage as only between one man and one woman."
The Defense of Marriage Act was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed by President Clinton.
"Marriage between a man and a woman is a universal good that diverse cultures and faiths have honored throughout the history of Western Civilization," Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jim Campbell said in a statement. ADF supports DOMA and Prop 8. "Marriage expresses the truth that men and women bring distinct, irreplaceable gifts to family life. The ProtectMarriage.com legal team looks forward to advocating before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the people's right to preserve this fundamental building block of civilization."
Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
Read resources about the gay marriage debate:
FIRST-PERSON (Daniel Akin): Is it true Jesus never addressed same-sex marriage?
FIRST-PERSON (Glenn Stanton): Why not legalize gay 'marriage'?
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