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U.S. Supreme Court decision to consider gay marraige ban likely to affect North Dakota case

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether states can ban gay marriage, delving into a contentious social issue in what will be one of the most anticipated rulings of the year. The federal judge overseeing the legal ch...

 

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether states can ban gay marriage, delving into a contentious social issue in what will be one of the most anticipated rulings of the year.

The federal judge overseeing the legal challenge to the gay marriage ban in North Dakota is likely to refrain from issuing a decision until the Supreme Court settles the matter, said Joshua Newville, who represents seven same-sex couples who sued the state in June to overturn the ban.

Both sides presented their final arguments to U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson in September.

“He may be inclined, at this point, to wait,” Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, one of the defendants in the North Dakota case, said of Erickson. “I know he’s thorough and very thoughtful, and this is a very contentious and difficult issue.”

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North Dakota was one of several states that in October asked the Supreme Court to “take up this very question,” Stenehjem said. “Ultimately, the Supreme Court will be able to determine whether North Dakota’s enactment and similar enactments across the country are constitutional or not.”

Newville expressed confidence that the court will rule in favor of same-sex couples.

“Looking at the major civil rights cases over the course of the last, you know, 100 years,” Newville said, “the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied based on various statuses.”

The Fargo-Moorhead Pride Collective and Community Center said in a statement, “Like so many across the nation, the Pride Collective eagerly anticipates the Supreme Court taking this matter into consideration. We look forward to full equality for all people who choose to marry the person they love.”

The Supreme Court, in a brief order, said it would hear cases concerning marriage restrictions in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. The ruling, due by the end of June, will determine whether 14 remaining state bans will be struck down.

The court said it will decide two questions: Whether states must allow same-sex couples to marry and whether states must recognize same-sex marriages that take place out-of-state. The court will hear an extended 2½ hours of oral arguments in April.

Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama’s administration will file court papers supporting the plaintiffs and seeking to legalize gay marriage nationwide. Obama in 2012 became the first sitting president to support gay marriage.

“It is time for our nation to take another critical step forward to ensure the fundamental equality of all Americans – no matter who they are, where they come from, or whom they love,” Holder said.

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Most of the states that are defending state bans had, like the gay rights advocates, urged the high court to take up the issue in order to resolve the legal uncertainty.

There has already been a legal sea change, thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s prompting. It began in earnest in June 2013 when the court struck down a federal law that restricted, for the purpose of federal benefits, the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples. Obama’s Justice Department refused to defend the law.

Judges around the country later seized on the language in the high court decision, written by swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, to strike down a series of state bans.

At the time of the 2013 ruling, only 12 states had authorized gay marriage. It is now legal in 36 of the 50 states.

Although the gathering momentum toward gay marriage has been prompted largely by the courts, opinion polls show that support among Americans has been rising in recent years. But many conservative Christians remain steadfastly opposed.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said he is hopeful the court will rule “in favor of voters’ right to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”

Reuters contributed to this report

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