The U.S. Supreme Court will not wait any longer to rule on same-sex marriage.
The high court announced Jan. 16 that it would review an appeals court decision on the issue. The announcement came after a private conference among the justices the same day.
The court will hear oral arguments in March or April and likely issue an opinion before it adjourns this summer. Depending on the justices’ decision, gay marriage could be legal throughout the country by the end of June or states could maintain their authority to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Advocates on both sides of the issue recognized the importance of the high court’s order.
“This case could potentially transform the cultural landscape of America,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said. “We should pray for the court, that they will not seek to redefine marriage. Marriage was not created by government action, and it shouldn’t be re-created by government action.”
“And even more than that,” Moore said, “we should pray for churches who will know how to articulate and embody a Christian vision of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman in the tumultuous years ahead.”
One of the leading supporters of same-sex marriage also commented on the high court’s decision to review gay marriage. “The Supreme Court’s decision today begins what we hope will be the last chapter in our campaign to win marriage nationwide – and it’s time,” Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states, nearly three times the number of states where it was legal just 18 months ago. It also is legal in the District of Columbia.
The high court granted review of a November decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals involving challenges to laws in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit, which is based in Cincinnati, was the first federal appellate body to rule states could limit marriage to the union of a man and a woman. Four other appeals courts had previously invalidated state laws that prohibited gay marriage.
In its order, the Supreme Court consolidated four cases and limited consideration to two questions: (1) Does the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution require a state “to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?” and (2) Does the 14th Amendment require a state “to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?”
The court set the time for oral arguments on the first question at 90 minutes. It allotted one hour for arguments on the second question.
The court’s decision may provide some clarity in a legal debate that has been especially active during the last 18 months.
Courts have issued more than three dozen opinions in favor of gay marriage since the Supreme Court struck down a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, saying it violated “equal protection” under the Constitution by refusing to recognize same-sex marriages. Though the high court refused to say states could not limit marriage to heterosexual couples, most courts have used the decision as a basis for striking down state laws that define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Only a handful of decisions have conflicted with the pro-gay marriage trend.
In October, the high court denied review of federal appeals court decisions overturning laws in five states that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. The justices’ refusal to hear the appeals came in spite of requests from both sides of the same-sex marriage debate that they rule soon. The ERLC joined four other religious organizations in a September friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices “to end the divisive national debate.” The current legal ambiguity is burdening religious organizations and people of faith, they said.
The expansion of same-sex marriage has resulted in a clash between the supposed rights of gay couples and the religious freedom of individuals and organizations. Photographers, florists, bakers and other business owners who oppose serving in support of same-sex wedding ceremonies have been penalized or are facing penalties for their refusal.
In the cases the justices will consider, the voters of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee all approved constitutional amendments between 2004 and 2006 that limited marriage to a man and a woman.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)