WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is quietly considering urging the Supreme Court to overturn California's ban on gay marriage, a step that would mark a political victory for advocates of same-sex unions and a deepening commitment by President Barack Obama to rights for gay couples.
Obama raised expectations among opponents of the Proposition 8 ban when he declared in last month's inaugural address that gays and lesbians must be "treated like anyone else under the law." The administration has until Feb. 28 to intervene in the case by filing a "friend of the court" brief.
The Proposition 8 ballot initiative was approved by California voters in 2008 and overturned a state Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage. Twenty-nine other states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, while nine states and Washington, D.C., recognize same-sex marriage.
An administration brief alone is unlikely to sway the Justices but the federal government's opinion does carry weight with the court.
A final decision on whether to file a brief has not been made, a senior administration official said. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli is consulting with the White House on the matter, said the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to address the private deliberations publicly.
While the Justice Department would formally make the filing, the president himself is almost certain to make the ultimate decision on whether to file.
"I have to make sure that I'm not interjecting myself too much into this process, particularly when we're not a party to the case," Obama said Wednesday in interview with San Francisco's KGO-TV.
He said his personal view is that gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples and said his administration would do whatever it could to promote that principle.
Obama has a complicated history on gay marriage. As a presidential candidate in 2008, he opposed the California ban but didn't endorse gay marriage. As he ran for re-election last year, he announced his personal support for same-sex marriage but said marriage was an issue that should be decided by the states, not the federal government.
To some, Obama's broad call for gay rights during his Jan. 21 inaugural address was a signal that he now sees a federal role in defining marriage.
"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," Obama said during his remarks on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. "For if we are truly created equal, than surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
But administration officials said Obama — a former constitutional law professor — was not foreshadowing any legal action in his remarks and was simply restating his personal belief in the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
Seeking to capitalize on growing public support for gay marriage, advocates are calling on the administration to file a broad brief not only asking the court to declare California's ban unconstitutional but also urging the Justices to make all state bans illegal.
"If they do make that argument and the court accepts it, the ramifications could be very sweeping," said Richard Socarides, an attorney and advocate.
The administration could also file a narrower brief that would ask the court to issue a decision applying only to California. Or it could decide not to weigh in on the case at all.
The Supreme Court, which will take up the case on March 26, has several options for its eventual ruling. Among them:
— The justices could uphold the state ban on gay marriage and say citizens of a state have the right to make that call.
— The court could endorse an appeals court ruling that would make same-sex marriage legal in California but apply only to that state.
— The court could issue a broader ruling that would apply to California and seven other states: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island. In those states, gay couples can join in civil unions that have all the benefits of marriage but cannot be married.
— The broadest ruling would be one that says the Constitution forbids states from banning same-sex unions. Continued...