A sweeping court endorsement of marriage rights seems unlikely. But by striking down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act - the indefensible 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton, who now opposes it - the justices could advance equality at least incrementally.
The Obama administration has declared the act unconstitutional but continues to enforce it while it's under court consideration. That means same-sex couples are being denied more than 1,100 federal benefits provided to their opposite-sex counterparts, such as Social Security survivor payments and inheritance-tax reprieves. It's time legally married gay and straight Americans were treated equally under the law.
In the other case before the court last week, former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olsen made a strong argument that California's Proposition 8, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, should be overturned. Olson argued that it "walls off gays and lesbians from marriage, the most important relation in life."
Olson wants the court to find that same-sex couples nationwide have the right to marry. Currently, only nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. Another handful, including New Jersey, permit civil unions, but studies show such relationships are treated as inferior to marriage.
The country's views on same-sex marriage have evolved quickly in recent years, though perhaps not as quickly as advocates would like. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that public support for gay marriage has reached an all-time high of 58 percent, up 21 percentage points over the last decade. And President Obama himself abandoned his opposition to gay marriage last year.
These shifts are making the legal questions more urgent and their answers more obvious. In the long run, while religious rights also must be protected, same-sex couples simply can't be denied the same civil rights as others.