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Gay Marriage Arguments Divide Supreme Court Justices
By ADAM LIPTAKAPRIL 28, 2015
Supporters of same-sex marriage gathered in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday as the justices prepared to hear arguments on the issue. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed deeply divided about one of the great civil rights issues of the age: whether the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.
The questions from the justices suggested that they were divided along the usual lines — conservative and liberal — with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy holding the controlling vote. On the evidence of his words, he seemed torn about what to do. But Justice Kennedy’s tone was more emotional and emphatic when he made the case for same-sex marriage. That, coupled with his earlier judicial opinions, gave gay rights advocates reason for optimism by the end of the arguments, which lasted two and a half hours.
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The justices appeared to clash over not only what is the right answer in the case but also over how to reach it. The questioning illuminated their conflicting views on history, tradition, biology, constitutional interpretation, the democratic process and the role of the courts in prodding social change.
The Times provided analysis and updates — with some delay, due to court restrictions — from the same-sex marriage arguments at the Supreme Court, as well as some of the best reporting from elsewhere.
Justice Kennedy said he was concerned about changing a conception of marriage that has persisted for so many years. Later, though, he expressed qualms about excluding gay families from what he called a noble and sacred institution. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. worried about shutting down a fast-moving societal debate.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked whether groups of four people must be allowed to marry, while Justice Antonin Scalia said a ruling for same-sex marriage might require some members of the clergy to perform ceremonies that violate their religious teaching.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer described marriage as a fundamental liberty. And Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan said that allowing same-sex marriage would do no harm to the marriages of opposite-sex couples.
Until recently, the court has been cautious and halting in addressing same-sex marriage, signaling that it did not want to outpace public support and developments in the states. Now, though, a definitive decision will probably be handed down in about two months.
At the start of Tuesday’s arguments, Chief Justice Roberts said he had looked up definitions of marriage and had been unable to find one written before a dozen years ago that did not define it as between a man and a woman. “If you succeed, that definition will not be operable,” the Chief Justice said. “You are not seeking to join the institution. You are seeking to change the institution.”