The Supreme Court will ultimately decide on two same-sex marriage cases, but the court's attention-grabbing move has put the pressure on President Barack Obama to clarify his stance on the issue.
When Obama announced in May that he favored same-sex marriage -- after previously supporting just civil unions -- many took it as a full embrace of same-sex marriage rights. It wasn't: his nuanced language stopped well short of endorsing the idea that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to marry for same-sex couples. He said the issue was best left to the states to decide in the near term.
But the Supreme Court's decision Friday may have sped up Obama's timeline.
The Obama administration made clear last year that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples. Obama said he'd concluded that law was unconstitutional. It was the Justice Department that asked the Supreme Court to take a challenge to DOMA, hoping justices would agree to strike it down.
However, the federal government has never taken a stand on the other, potentially more significant case that the justices added to their calendar on Friday: the legal challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriage, approved in 2008. In 2010, a district court judge struck down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional and found a broad federal right to same-sex marriage. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit also found the measure unconstitutional, but on narrower grounds.
Though the case transfixed gay rights activists, the Obama administration never weighed in. And when Prop. 8 backers asked the Supreme Court to take the case, the Justice Department was again silent. The department had no duty to file anything since the suit was against the State of California, not the federal government.
The Justice Department could have taken a stand at any point, and could still stay out of it -- but now, dodging that question has gotten harder.
"There will be pressure for the Justice Department to weigh in on the Prop. 8 case," said Richard Socarides, a longtime gay rights activist and White House adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Socarides said that when Obama "evolved" in the direction of support for gay marriage earlier this year, he and his aides seemed eager to let some time pass before confronting the question of whether it was a right every American should be guaranteed.
"I think this federalizes the issue much more quickly than the White House would have liked and may force them to take a position earlier than they would have liked," Socarides said.
"It's a fascinating question," said another prominent gay rights activist, who asked not to be named. "Will they be at the table and which side of the table will they be at?"
SOURCE: JOSH GERSTEIN