By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - America's top court was expected to deliver rulings on Wednesday in two high-profile cases with national implications on gay marriage, an issue that stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere.
At 10 a.m. (1400 GMT), the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were due to convene in Washington to issue rulings in the last three cases of its current session, two of them on same-sex marriage.
The court was due to rule on the constitutionality of a federal law that denies benefits to same-sex married couples and a California state law that bans gay marriage. Those cases, argued in March, could shape the debate over whether gay men and women should have the right to marry.
There are many possible outcomes, ranging from a broad decision proclaiming a fundamental right for gays to marry, which most experts say is unlikely, to more narrow decisions that are limited in scope.
Both cases came before the court with opinion polls showing growing support among Americans for gay marriage but division among the 50 states. Now, 12 states recognize it; more than 30 states prohibit it; and others have laws somewhere in-between.
The federal case concerns the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which limits the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal benefits. It permits benefits such as Social Security survivor payments and federal tax deductions only for married, opposite-sex couples, not for legally married same-sex couples.
President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996 after it passed Congress with only 81 of 535 lawmakers opposing it. Clinton, a Democrat, said earlier this year that times had changed since then and called for the law to be overturned.
The DOMA case before the court focuses on whether Edith Windsor of New York, who was married to a woman, should get the federal estate tax deduction available to heterosexuals when their spouses pass away.
Windsor's marriage to Thea Spyer was recognized under New York law, but not under the federal law. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was forced to pay federal estate taxes because the federal government would not recognize her marriage. She sued the government, seeking a $363,000 tax refund.
President Barack Obama's administration initially defended the law but in 2011 Attorney General Eric Holder said the law was unconstitutional. The administration asked the Supreme Court to strike the law down. During oral arguments in March, it appeared the justices may be poised to do so. Obama is the first sitting president to support gay marriage.
The California case involves a state ballot initiative, called Proposition 8, which was approved by voters in 2008 just months after the state's high court said gay marriages could proceed.
A federal judge struck the law down in 2010, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. Proponents of the ban appealed, setting in motion the journey to the Supreme Court.
The two couples who filed suit were Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, from Berkeley, and Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami, who live in Burbank.
The cases are United States v. Windsor, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-307 and Hollingsworth v. Perry, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-144. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)
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06/26/2013 7:32 PM EDT
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Some Catholic leaders are asking parishioners to consider the judgment of a higher power, not the nation's highest court.
Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court's decision in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases, saying that attempts to redefine marriage "hurt us all."
The well-being of our society, our nation, and our families is intimately linked to the institution of marriage. These decisions by the United States Supreme Court will make significantly more difficult our work of upholding the truth that marriage is a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. Such decisions, made by any civic authority, do not serve the common good.
Catholics and millions of our fellow citizens will continue to make the case, respectfully yet vigorously, that marriage cannot be redefined, and that attempts to do so hurt us all.
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06/26/2013 5:58 PM EDT
Stonewall Inn Crowd Celebrates DOMA, Vows To Keep Fighting
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NEW YORK -- On Wednesday, the Stonewall Inn opened earlier than usual. At 10 a.m., the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed the gay rights movement a landmark victory, the historic bar was dimly lit, strung with rainbow flags, and filled with revelers toasting each other and pledging their determination to keep fighting.
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Rev. Gary Hall, Dean of the Cathedral, released a statement soon after the rulings were announced:
“We are ringing our bells at the Cathedral to celebrate the extension of federal marriage equality to all the same-sex couples modeling God’s love in lifelong covenants," he said. "Our prayers for continued happiness are with them and with all couples who will be joined in matrimony in the years to come, whether at Washington National Cathedral or elsewhere."
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Matthew Shepard's Mom Responds To DOMA Ruling
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06/26/2013 3:45 PM EDT
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DOMA Decision Helps LGBT Couples On Immigration
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Judy Rickard, who is 65, and Karin Bogliolo, who is 72, have been together for eight years, legal domestic partners for five and legally married for two. They're one of an estimated 28,500 binational same-sex couples who have been excluded from immigration benefits because of DOMA, which disallowed the federal government from recognizing their marriages. The ruling doesn't entirely fix the problem -- couples must be married rather than partners, and must travel to a state that allows same-sex marriage if they don't live in one -- but it's still a major victory for LGBT rights.
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06/26/2013 3:07 PM EDT
Food Network Host Announces Engagement To Partner Of 20 Years
Ted Allen, host of the hit Food Network show "Chopped" and his partner of 20 years, interior designer Barry Rice, were "over the moon" when they read on Wednesday morning that the court had ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
Their day had come. They were getting married. Allen quickly announced their engagement on Twitter and Facebook. He said that the notices garnered the most enthusiastic response of any he'd ever posted; his Facebook status received 417 comments in the first 40 minutes.
Fellow food competition host Tom Colicchio sent his enthusiastic congratulations to the couple via Twitter.
Allen said that he and Rice would soon begin preparing for their wedding, likely a quiet affair in New York, but for now they're content to revel in the good news.
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