Same-Sex Marriage: The Question Gripping the Nation

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Before 2011, only five states allowed gay marriage: Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut — although same-sex marriages were briefly performed for several months in 2008. When the California Supreme Court knocked down Proposition 22 in May 2008, the way was paved for same-sex marriage to become legal in the state the following month. But by November, same-sex marriage was once again illegal thanks to the passage of Proposition 8 — legislation that proclaimed: “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Same-sex marriage would remain illegal in the state until 2013, when the United States Supreme Court ruled on an appeal of Hollingsworth v. Perry — a lawsuit filed by two same-sex couples following the passage of the 2008 ban. Proposition 8 was overturned as a result of the decision.

Now, same-sex marriages are allowed in 17 states plus the District of Columbia — the result of a string of new laws passed by state legislatures, approved by voters, or demand by a state court. As one would expect, public opinion has changed significantly over the past few years; a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in March of last year showed 58 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legal, an increase from 37 percent in September 2003. When the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act in the summer of 2013, a new legal basis was established for addressing same-sex marriages.

In ruling a key part of the 1996 unconstitutional, the court made it illegal for gay couples married in states where it is legal to not receive the same federal health, tax, Social Security, and other benefits that heterosexual couples receive. That ruling gave new momentum to the political shift in gay marriage legality that was taking place at the state level — a shift that is still underway.

A total of 33 states — which mainly fall in the middle and south of the country — still limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. But recent rulings by federal judges in six states have invalidated laws that banned same-sex marriage or laws that prohibited the recognition of gay marriages performed in other states.

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