In a move highly anticipated by advocates on both sides of the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to rule on four gay marriage cases, paving the way for what is expected to be among the high court's landmark decisions.
The court agreed to hear four cases involving marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, the focus of a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit decision that parted from other appellate courts which struck down state gay marriage prohibitions. The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider the question of whether state bans prohibiting same-sex marriages violate 14th Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection by treating gay couples differently than heterosexual couples.
The court ordered lawyers for the same-sex couples in the four cases must file their briefs by Feb. 27, and lawyers for the states must file their briefs by March 27. Reply briefs are due on April 17. Although the court did not specify when oral arguments would be held, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hold its final session of oral arguments from April 20 through April 29.
The court action will likely put on hold Florida's appeal of a federal judge's August decision that the state's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional. That appeal is now pending before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Florida Attorney General General Pam Bondi, who has fiercely defended Florida's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban, praised the Supreme Court on Friday.
"All along, I have maintained that the U.S. Supreme Court should decide the same sex marriage issue in order to provide uniformity in Florida and resolve the legal issue nationwide," Bondi said in a statement. "I am pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the same sex marriage issue and provide finality on the matter."
Hinkle's hold on his August ruling expired on Jan. 6 after Bondi failed to convince the Supreme Court to extend it. Gay and lesbian couples throughout the state immediately began to have their unions solidified by marriage despite reluctance from some county clerks, especially in North Florida, who stopped performing weddings to avoid having to perform nuptials for same-sex duos.
The Supreme Court's final decision won't have an immediate impact on gay marriage in Florida but "could settle once and for all the matter of whether states can shut some people out of the institution of marriage simply for being gay or lesbian," said ACLU of Florida lawyer Daniel Tilley, one of the attorneys involved in the Florida federal lawsuit.
"…These hurtful bans are unconstitutional, and (we) look forward to a final ruling that means that all loving couples throughout the country can finally have access to the protections and dignity that come with marriage.”
The upcoming court consideration also gave hope to opponents of gay marriage who argue that states should be able to decide on the matter.
"The issue is still very much an open question until the United States Supreme Court weighs in and determines whether states have a right to define marriage. It is very possible a five vote majority exists in favor of state's rights and a decision of this nature would immediately reinvigorate the authority and enforceability of the Florida marriage amendment passed by just under five million voters," said Florida Family Policy Council President John Stemberger, who was instrumental in pushing the constitutional gay marriage ban approved by Florida voters in 2008. "People should have the right to vote on defining marriage and we are very hopeful the high court will uphold that right."
Three dozen states, including Florida, have legalized same-sex marriages.
"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," said Evan Wolfson, president of New York-based Freedom to Marry. "Freedom to Marry's national strategy has been to build a critical mass of marriage states and critical mass of support for ending marriage discrimination, and after a long journey and much debate, America is ready for the freedom to marry."
– Dara Kam, News Service of Florida