(Bloomberg) — A pivotal justice sent mixed signals as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a historic case that could legalize gay weddings nationwide.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said same-sex couples were seeking only the same “dignity” and “ennoblement” as heterosexual couples. Earlier, he offered hope to same-sex marriage opponents who argue that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman.
“This definition has been with us for millennia,” Kennedy said. It’s difficult for the Supreme Court to say “we know better,” he asked.
Chief Justice John Roberts also aimed questions at both sides during the first part of the court’s 2 1/2 hour argument.
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The “basic definition” of marriage is between a man and woman, Roberts said. While acceptance of same-sex marriage has occurred relatively quickly, people feel “very differently” about issues they have an opportunity to vote on rather than having a policy imposed by a court, the chief justice said.
“You’re seeking to change what the institution is,” Roberts told a lawyer for gay-marriage proponents. “If you prevail here, there will be no more debate.”
As the state of Michigan presented its case in favor of state bans on gay marriage, Roberts also questioned that position.
“If Sue loves Joe and Tom loves Joe, Sue can marry Joe but Tom cannot,” Roberts said. “Why isn’t that a straightforward case of sexual discrimination?”
Kennedy is a critical vote for marriage advocates. He wrote all three of the court’s rulings expanding gay rights over the last two decades, including the 5-4 decision two years ago that required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages.
The Obama administration’s Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said the Constitution’s equal-protection guarantee should apply, giving gay couples access to the institution.
Gay-marriage opponents are saying “that with regard to marriage they are not ready yet,” Verrilli said. “Gay and lesbian people are equal, they deserve equal protection of the law and they deserve it now.”