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Gay marriage at the Supreme Court: What are the pivot points?

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On March 26 and 27, the US Supreme Court is set to hear two potential landmark gay rights cases, both dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage.

This marks the first time in 40 years that the high court is being asked to fundamentally redefine what marriage is in the United States. In the process, the high court is injecting itself squarely into one of the most divisive social issues of the past quarter century.

The outcome could affect hundreds of millions of dollars in federal marriage benefits currently limited to heterosexual spouses.

As in 2003, gay rights advocates are again hoping to win the potentially decisive swing vote of Kennedy. They are also hoping that the substance of Scalia's impassioned constitutional analysis in his dissent back in 2003 holds true in 2013.

"Lawrence was a very important turning point. It removed a huge roadblock on the path to gay marriage," says Dale Carpenter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor and author of "Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas."

The decision lifted a legal stigma surrounding homosexuality and – despite Kennedy's disclaimer – it established a constitutional foundation that has influenced every subsequent court decision involving same-sex marriage.

Specifically at issue before the high court this month are two meas-ures that seek to preserve the traditional definition of marriage.

The first is a 2008 ballot initiative in California known as Proposition 8, which defines marriage in the state constitution as a legal union of one man and one woman. The second case is a challenge to the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which for purposes of federal benefits also defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

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