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For gay rights activists, partial victory more likely than sweeping

U.S. Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments in a case that could overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for a second day on Wednesday. Potential swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy warned the law may infringe on states' rights to define marriage. 

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Solicitor General Donald Virrilli (R) argues in front of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (L) and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Justices indicated interest in striking down the law denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

REUTERS/Art Lien/Handout

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The U.S. Supreme Court seemed to be leaning on Wednesday toward striking down a law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples in a move that would reflect a shift in Americans' attitudes about gay marriage.

In a second day of oral arguments on same-sex marriage, a majority of the court raised serious concerns with the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, enacted in 1996 under President Bill Clinton.

Arguments over the last two days on the DOMA case and a separate one challenging California's ban on gay marriage marked the high court's first foray into a delicate and divisive political, religious and social issue in the United States as polls indicate growing public support for same-sex marriage.

In theory, the cases have the potential for the court to take a significant step toward endorsing gay marriage as it gains support in some parts of the country. Based on the arguments, however, a partial victory for gay rights activists seems more likely than the sweeping declaration of same-sex marriage rights they had hoped for.

As demonstrators rallied outside the Supreme Court building for a second day, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a potential swing vote, showed a willingness to invalidate DOMA, which denies married same-sex couples access to federal benefits by defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

He warned of a "real risk" that the law infringes on the traditional role of the states in defining marriage.

A conservative, Kennedy is viewed as a key vote on this issue in part because he has twice authored decisions in the past that were viewed as favorable to gay rights.

In contrast to the ambivalent approach they displayed on Tuesday in arguments about California's Proposition 8 gay marriage ban, the nine justices seemed willing to address the substantive issue in the DOMA case, while also eyeing procedural questions.

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