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US top court hands big win to gay marriage backers

07 October 2014, 09:03

Washington - The Supreme Court unexpectedly cleared the way Monday for a dramatic expansion of gay marriage in the United States and may have signalled that it's only a matter of time before same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states.

Rejecting appeals from five states seeking to preserve their bans, the Supreme Court effectively made such marriages legal in 30 states, up from 19 and Washington, DC, taking in every region of the country.

While the ruling stops short of resolving for now the question of same-sex marriage nationwide, it is a major victory for advocates of gay marriage. It continues a dramatic turnaround on the issue across the United States in recent years, with gay marriage generally winning approval in court cases, state legislatures and public opinion polls.

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Almost immediately, exuberant couples began receiving marriage licenses previously denied to them. "This is the dream day," said Sharon Baldwin, a plaintiff in a challenge to Oklahoma's ban, as she and her partner got their license in the Tulsa County Clerk's Office.

Lindsey Oliver, 30, and Nicole Pries, 42, received the first same-sex marriage license issued from the Richmond Circuit Court Clerk's office in Virginia.

Volatile social issue

Directly affected by Monday's orders were Wisconsin, Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia. Officials in those states had appealed lower court rulings in an effort to preserve their bans.

 Couples in six other states — Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming — should be able to get married in short order since those states would be bound by the same appellate rulings that have been on hold.

Gay marriage has been a volatile social issue in America over the past decade, one that has veered from helping Republicans turn out their conservative base during George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 to one that now vexes the party.

 Public support has swung rapidly in favour of same-sex marriage in recent years. That's a big shift since the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared the state's marriage ban unconstitutional in 2003, prompting states around the US to pass marriage bans.

Lower courts have overturned one same-sex marriage ban after another following the Supreme Court's landmark decision in June 2013 that partially struck down a Clinton-era federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Supporters and opponents

Gay marriage proponents have since enjoyed a stunning string of legal victories, winning more than 20 court decisions around the US Cases were filed in the 31 states that prohibit same-sex marriage.

While county clerks in a number of states quickly began issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples, in some other states affected by the court's action officials did not sound ready to give up the fight. However, their legal options are limited.

Monday's terse orders from the court were contained among more than 1 500 rejected appeals that had piled up over the summer. The outcome was not what either side expected or wanted. Both gay marriage supporters and opponents had asked the court to resolve whether the Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide.

The justices did not explain why they decided to leave that question unanswered for now. They may be waiting for a federal appeals court to break ranks with other appellate panels and uphold state laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Or they may see little role for themselves as one court after another strikes down state marriage bans.

Still, the import seemed clear. What the justices did in virtual silence on Monday "has to send a signal to the other courts of appeals that the Supreme Court does not think it's so wrong to allow same-sex couples to marry, and that even conservative justices don't think they have a good shot at getting five votes. And that sends a message that this essentially is over", said Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, an advocacy group for gay rights.

Constitutional amendment

Leaders of the National Organisation for Marriage predicted a backlash in the form of renewed efforts to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

"The notion that the people have nothing to say about this — that unelected judges are going to decide it for us — that's preposterous," said John Eastman, the organisation's chairman.

Also Read: Nigeria outlaws same-sex marriage and civil unions

However, efforts to pass such an amendment have gained little traction, even in past years when support for same-sex marriage was less robust. NOM's president, Brian Brown, acknowledged that any renewed efforts would be "long and arduous."

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, called on the high court to "finish the job" with a national ruling.

Wolfson said the court's "delay in affirming the freedom to marry nationwide prolongs the patchwork of state-to-state discrimination and the harms and indignity that the denial of marriage still inflicts on too many couples in too many places."

On the other side, Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an opponent of same-sex marriage, also chastised the court for its "irresponsible denial of review in the cases."

Whelan said it is hard to see how the court could eventually rule in favour of same-sex marriage bans after having allowed so many court decisions striking down those bans to remain in effect.

- AP

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