WASHINGTON -- Gay rights groups as well as opponents of same-sex marriage are hailing the Supreme Court's double-barreled decision to hear two landmark cases on the issue early next year.
The court Friday afternoon announced it would hear challenges to California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married gay and lesbian couples. Lower courts had ruled against those laws.
"Today is a milestone day for equal justice under the law and for millions of loving couples who want to make a lifelong commitment through marriage," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "The passage of Proposition 8 caused heartbreak for so many Americans, but today's announcement gives hope that we will see a landmark Supreme Court ruling for marriage this term. As the court has ruled 14 times in the past, marriage is a fundamental right, and I believe they will side with liberty, freedom and equality, moving us toward a more perfect union as they have done in the past."
On the flip side, the National Organization for Marriage said the court's decision to consider the constitutionality of Proposition 8's ban on same-sex marriage shows it is willing to uphold that voter initiative.
"We believe that it is significant that the Supreme Court has taken the Prop 8 case," said John Eastman, the group's chairman and former dean at Chapman University School of Law. "We believe it is a strong signal that the court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8.
"Had the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts' decisions invalidating Proposition 8, it could simply have declined to grant certiorari in the case. It's a strong signal that the justices are concerned with the rogue rulings that have come out of San Francisco at both the trial court and appellate levels."
Some progressive groups had hoped the court would not take up Proposition 8 yet, since denying the case would have upheld lower court rulings against the ban. In that case, marriages could have started again in California within days or weeks. Now, those marriages remain on hold.
Still, liberal groups heralded the court's action.
"Today's grant tees up the fundamental question whether the Constitution's promise of equality for all persons applies to gay men and lesbians when it comes to marriage," said David Gans, civil rights director at the Constitutional Accountability Center. "If the court is faithful to the Constitution's text and history, it will conclude that the constitutional guarantee of equal protection does not permit discriminatory marriage laws that treat gay men and lesbians as second class, inferior persons."
Equally enthused by the decision were the gay and lesbian couples and individuals who brought the cases, as well as their lawyers. There were eight Defense of Marriage Act cases before the court, but only one got selected.
"We look forward to presenting our case, and we believe we have a very strong case," said Roberta Kaplan of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who represents 83-year-old lesbian widow Edie Windsor. Her life story of devotion and discrimination, Kaplan said, "reflects and mirrors the experience of gay men and lesbians in our society."
Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who represents plaintiffs in two other Defense of Marriage Act challenges, said the court's acceptance of a case is a turning point for the movement.
"This day has been long in the making," Bonauto said. "DOMA creates a gay-only exception to federal recognition of state-licensed marriages, and we believe that the federal government should stop discriminating against same-sex couples legally married by their states."