Two recent federal court rulings may be sending the issue of same-sex marriage rights to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The first, issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit at the end of May, determined that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional insofar as it prohibits same-sex couples from receiving the same federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples. In the second case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reconsider its ruling that determined California’s “Proposition 8” – which banned same-sex marriage – was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court could hear the cases as early as next spring. It would be the first time the nation’s highest court has addressed the issue of same-sex marriage rights.

Outcome Still Unclear

It is unclear how the court will rule. The issue is still relatively new, and courts throughout the country have not agreed on what standard should be used to evaluate the constitutionality of laws that restrict the rights of same-sex couples.

The First Circuit case was firmly rooted in long-standing principles of equal protection law. However, it is narrowly tailored to the issue of federal benefits – like Social Security survivors’ benefits and the ability to file joint tax returns – and does not directly address the rights of same-sex couples to seek state- or federally-recognized civil marriages. The Ninth Circuit case does.

Supreme Court action may be the best way for same-sex couples to seek recognition of their civil rights, especially in states like Arkansas where lawmakers are unwilling or unable to support marriage equality.

Source: The New York Times, “Appeals Court Turns Back Marriage Act as Unfair to Gays,” Katherine Q. Seelye, May 31, 2012.