WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dove into a historic debate on gay rights Tuesday that could soon lead to resumption of same-sex marriage in California, but the justices signaled they may not be ready for a major national ruling on whether America's gays and lesbians have a right to marry.
The court's first major examination of gay rights in 10 years continues Wednesday, when the justices will consider the federal law that prevents legally married gay couples from receiving a range of benefits afforded straight married people.
The issue before the court on Tuesday was more fundamental: Does the Constitution require that people be allowed to marry whom they choose, regardless of either partner's gender? The fact that the question was in front of the Supreme Court at all was startling, given that no state recognized same-sex unions before 2003 and 40 states still don't allow them.
There is no questioning the emotions the issue stirs. Demonstrators on both sides crowded the grounds outside the court, waving signs, sometimes chanting their feelings.
Inside, a skeptical Justice Samuel Alito cautioned against a broad ruling in favor of gay marriage precisely because the issue is so new.
"You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cellphones or the Internet? I mean, we do not have the ability to see the future," Alito said.
Indeed, it was clear from the start of the 80-minute argument in a packed courtroom, that the justices, including some liberals who seemed open to gay marriage, had doubts about whether they should even be hearing the challenge to California's Proposition 8, the state's voter-approved gay marriage ban.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the potentially decisive vote on a closely divided court, suggested the justices could dismiss the case with no ruling at all.