Most contentious political issues eventually end up in the Supreme Court and the gay marriage issues is no exception.
Justices will hear two cases involving the legality of both state and federal law that prohibits gay marriage.
The Supreme Court stepped into the gay marriage debate for the first time on Friday by agreeing to review two challenges to federal and state laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The high court agreed to review a case against a federal law that denies married same-sex couples the federal benefits heterosexual couples receive. It also took up a challenge to California's ban on gay marriage, known as Proposition 8, which voters narrowly approved in 2008.
Same-sex marriage is a politically charged issue in a country where 31 of the 50 states have passed constitutional amendments banning it, while Washington, D.C., and nine states have legalized it, three of them on Election Day last month.
Yet even where it is legal, married same-sex couples do not qualify for a host of federal benefits because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, passed by Congress, only recognizes marriages between a man and a woman.
Gays and lesbians married under state laws have filed suits challenging their denial of such benefits as Social Security survivor payments and the right to file joint federal tax returns. They argue the provision, known as Section 3, violates equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
Meeting in private on Friday at their last weekly conference before the court's holiday recess, the justices considered requests to review seven cases dealing with same-sex relationships. Five of them were challenges to the federal marriage law, one to California's gay marriage ban and another to an Arizona law against domestic partner benefits.
The court had been widely expected to take up at least one of the challenges to the federal marriage law, given that two federal appeals courts had found the law unconstitutional. Less clear was what the court would do with the California gay marriage ban.
"Taking both a states' rights case like Prop 8, and a case involving Congress's authority in the DOMA ... suggests that the court is ready to take on the entire issue, not just piecemeal it," said Andrew Pugno, a lawyer for the individuals defending California's gay marriage ban.
There's a chance that DOMA will survive in some form, but it isn't likely. This trenchant analysis by Lyle Denniston of SCOTUS blog lays out the choices before the court:
About two decades after the campaign to win the right to marry for same-sex couples began, the Supreme Court on Friday afternoon agreed to consider - but not necessarily to decide - some of the most important constitutional issues at the heart of that national controversy. Each side gained the opportunity to make sweeping arguments, for or against such marriages. But the Court left itself the option, at least during the current Term, of not giving real answers, perhaps because it lacks the authority to do so.
The rather wordy pair of orders the Justices issued at 3:13 p.m. Friday accepted for review core questions on the power of states and of Congress to pass laws that either forbid, or discourage, same-sex marriage, when such laws are passed either to express disapproval of homosexuality or to try to protect the traditional view that marriage should be open only to a man and a woman. But, on both of the granted cases, the Court told the lawyers to be prepared to argue points that could keep the Court from reaching those constitutional questions.
The more narrow the finding, the better chance for the idea that marriage should only be between a man and a woman survives. But it may be more a symbolic statement than one that is backed by any concrete law. DOMA may be stripped of meaning if the justices decide in favor of the plaintiffs. And it would be one more step toward a decision down the road that would make gay marriage the law of the land.