By agreeing on Friday to decide two different appeals involving same-sex marriage, the high court has set itself up as ultimate arbiter in an emotional and divisive battle at the heart of the nation’s raging culture war.
But the central question of these appeals is not whether the US Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage.
Instead, the issue before the court is whether measures like Proposition 8 in California and the federal 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) amount to invidious discrimination against homosexuals in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
However, should a majority of justices agree, the court’s decision might well provide a gay rights landmark equivalent to Brown v. Board of Education.
Supporters of the anti-gay marriage measures say they are merely upholding the traditional definition of marriage, as a union between one man and one woman.
Nonetheless, since 2004, more than 100,000 same-sex marriages have been performed in the US.
At its most basic, the issue the justices must determine is how equal protection is to be enforced in cases involving sexual orientation and marriage.