WASHINGTON â€” After two decades in which gay rights moved from the margin to capture the support of most Americans, the Supreme Court justices will go behind closed doors this week to decide whether 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. In times past, 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 vs. Wade ruling had gone too far too fast.
Now, the justices must decide whether to hear an appeal from the defenders of California’sÂ 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 the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denies such a right, 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.
Opinion polls now show a majority of Americans favor marriage equality, and support for it has been growing about 4% per year. On Nov. 6, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved same-sex marriage, bringing the total to nine states.
Does the shift in public opinion suggest the court should uphold gay marriage now, or wait for more states, perhaps a majority, to legalize it?