Updated Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 12:28 PM
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court decided Friday to enter the national debate over same-sex marriage by agreeing to review a California ballot measure that banned it and a federal law that blocks benefits for married same-sex couples.
Decisions in those cases will not directly affect Washington state's new same sex-marriage law but could put the court on a path to deciding whether gay marriage should be legal in all states.
The justices agreed to second-guess a lower court's decision striking down California's Proposition 8. Simultaneously, they agreed to consider challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which blocks same-sex married couples from receiving a host of federal benefits.
The separate cases, to be heard next year, will thrust the high court into tricky constitutional terrain.
It "tees up the fundamental question of whether the Constitution's promise of equality for all persons applies to gay men and lesbians when it comes to marriage," said David Gans, the civil-rights director of the Constitutional Accountability Center, which supports gay marriage.
Meeting in a private session Friday, justices had to pick and choose among 10 different appeals that deal in some fashion with same-sex marriage. Eight of the cases challenged the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. One appeal involved an Arizona law on benefits for state workers, and one dealt with California's Proposition 8.
The justices' action came a day after Washington state issued its first same-sex marriage licenses, after voters approved Referendum 74 last month. Same-sex couples can begin marrying in the state Sunday.
The California ballot measure declared that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized." The state's voters approved it in 2008 by 52-48 percent, casting into limbo the status of same-sex couples who'd already been married in the state. More than 18,000 same-sex marriage licenses were issued in California before the ballot measure passed.
In a narrowly written decision issued last February, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Proposition 8 on the basis that it stripped individuals of rights that had previously been granted when gay marriages were permitted.
The Supreme Court could issue either a broad or a narrow ruling. Justices might decide that the Constitution protects same-sex-marriage rights in all states, or just in California, or they might uphold Proposition 8. Justices also left themselves a possible escape route, if they decide that the individuals who support Proposition 8 might lack the legal standing to sue.
The federal case concerns two New York City women, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, who were married in 2007 in Canada. Spyer died in 2009, and Windsor inherited her property.
One section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act denies a variety of federal economic and other benefits to same-sex couples: They can't save money by filing joint tax returns or share federal health insurance, and surviving spouses can't collect Social Security survivor benefits, among other restrictions.
The federal law did not allow the IRS to treat Windsor as a surviving spouse, and she faced a tax bill of some $360,000 that a spouse in a heterosexual marriage would not have had to pay.
Windsor sued, and in October the federal appeals court in New York struck down the 1996 law. The decision was the second from a federal appeals court to do so, joining one in May from a court in Boston.
The Windsor case made its way the Supreme Court unusually quickly because the parties had filed an appeal from the trial court's decision in the case, also striking down the law, even before the appeals court had ruled.
Windsor, 83, said she was "absolutely thrilled" that the court had agreed to hear her case.
The argument against denying federal benefits for same-sex couples under DOMA is that it violates the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection.
The Obama administration initially defended the legislation in court, as is customary, but it stopped doing so last year. House Republicans stepped into the breach, hiring Paul Clement and agreeing to spend up to $1.5 million to defend the law.
Clement argued unsuccessfully against the Obama administration's health-care law before the high court this year.
The case will be heard before the court's term expires in June. As with other politically charged disputes, the cases are certain to attract dozens of amicus briefs.
Inevitably, some will target Justice Anthony Kennedy in particular. He was on the losing end of the court's 5-4 decision in June to uphold the health-care law. On previous gay-rights cases, though, the Reagan-administration appointee has twice authored opinions striking down state measures deemed to be discriminatory.
Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The New York Times and The Associated Press. Seattle Times staff reporter Brian M. Rosenthal contributed to this report.
RICHARD DREW / AP
Edith Windsor, of New York City, sued to be treated as a surviving spouse. Her case is one that the high court agreed to review.