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Human Rights

US Supreme Court hears second gay marriage case

The US Supreme Court has convened to hear arguments over a law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Nine states recognize same-sex marriage, while 30 ban it. Other states remain in between.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27: Married couple Nathan Lents (L) and Oscar Cifuentes kiss in front of Westboro Baptist Church protesters, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Today the high court is scheduled to hear arguments on whether Congress can withhold federal benefits from legally wed gay couples by defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Homo-Ehe Protest Washington Proposition 8 US Supreme Court

The court is expected to hear almost two hours of oral arguments Wednesday regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The nine justices heard arguments Tuesday on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, a state ban on gay marriage.

The justices displayed a reluctance to rule broadly on California's right to marry measure, suggesting the court may be similarly cautious about DOMA. Rulings are expected by the end of June.

DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman, with benefits such as Social Security survivor payments and federal tax deductions only going to partners in such marriages. In 1996, former President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law after receiving broad Congressional support.

Protesters on both sides of the issue took to the streets for a second day in Washington as the Supreme Court met.

'Pretty simple'

The DOMA case before the Supreme Court was brought by Edith Windsor, whose marriage to Thea Spyer was recognized under New York law, but not under federal law because of DOMA. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was forced to pay estate tax because the federal government would not recognize her marriage. She later sued, seeking a refund of $363,000 (284,000 euros).

Windsor's lawyers say the US government has no role in defining marriage, which is traditionally left to the states, and lower courts have supported her case.

"The case is pretty simple. It's about discrimination," said James Esseks, one of Windsor's lawyers. "It doesn't make sense in America for a federal government to treat two different people married under the same state law, different ways. That is unfair, it is un-American, and it should be unconstitutional."

The Obama administration has agreed that DOMA violates the US Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. The Justice Department has declined to defend the statute in front of the Supreme Court as it normally would when a federal statute is challenged.

Instead, Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, have created the "Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group," or BLAG, to defend the federal law in front of the Supreme Court.

mkg/mz (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)