WASHINGTON — In the second of back-to-back gay marriage cases, the Supreme Court is turning to a constitutional challenge to the law that prevents legally married gay Americans from collecting federal benefits generally available to straight married couples.
A section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act says marriage may only be a relationship between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law, regardless of state laws that allow same-sex marriage.
Lower federal courts have struck down the measure, and now the justices, in nearly two hours of scheduled argument Wednesday, will consider whether to follow suit.
A somewhat smaller crowd gathered outside the court Wednesday, mainly gay marriage supporters who held American and rainbow flags. One man wore a rainbow flag as a cape. "Two, four, six, eight, we do not discriminate," a group chanted at one point.
The DOMA argument follows Tuesday's case over California's ban on same-sex marriage, a case in which the justices indicated they might avoid a major national ruling on whether America's gays and lesbians have a right to marry. Even without a significant ruling, the court appeared headed for a resolution that would mean the resumption of gay and lesbian weddings in California.
Marital status is relevant in more than 1,100 federal laws that include estate taxes, Social Security survivor benefits and health benefits for federal employees. Lawsuits around the country have led four federal district courts and two appeals courts to strike down the law's Section 3, which defines marriage. In 2011, the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law but continues to enforce it. House Republicans are now defending DOMA in the courts.
Same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. The states are Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington. It also was legal in California for less than five months in 2008.