How legal tide turned on same-sex marriage in the US

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Same sex marriage is now legal is as many as 31 US states, covering more than 60% of the US population.

A critical turning point came in October 2014, when the Supreme Court chose not to hear appeals against lower court rulings that had overturned same-sex marriage bans in five states.

That action was built on two years of court challenges, and many analysts predict it is only a matter of time before gay couples can marry across the country.

So, what does it all mean and how did we get to this point?

How many US states allow same-sex marriage?

Thirty-one states are issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington state, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, as well as Washington DC, which sets its own marriage laws but is not legally a state.

And experts say a US Supreme Court decision to not hear appeals has set a potential precedent in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, and Wyoming.

In addition, same-sex couples married in Arkansas after a local judge ruled 1997 and 2004 bans unconstitutional, but marriages there were halted soon afterwards, pending an appeal of the case. Also, in Michigan couples were briefly able to marry before a court stayed a ruling overturning its ban.

In many other states, same-sex marriage has been approved either through legislation, court rulings or voter referenda.

What about states where it is banned?

The remaining states do not legally sanction gay marriage, but laws vary greatly. Some states have civil union laws that grant couples most if not all of the rights and benefits of marriage.

Other states have passed bans or state constitutional amendments forbidding such unions. Some ban same-sex marriage but recognise couples married in other states.

Bans on gay marriage have been quashed in recent months in several other states, although couples have not been wed there because the bans remain in place during appeals.

What have been the key Supreme Court rulings?

On 6 October, the court turned away appeals from five states with gay marriage bans on the books that had challenged appeals court rulings overturning those bans.

In challenging the gay marriage bans, proponents relied on a 2013 Supreme Court ruling in the case of United States v Windsor.

In that case, the court overturned the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (Doma), which barred the federal government from recognising same sex marriages.

Under Doma, for example, individuals in same-sex marriages were ineligible for benefits from federal programmes such as the Social Security pension system and some tax allowances if their partners died.

Another key case, Hollingsworth v Perry of 2013, was filed by two lawyers, Theodore Olson and David Boies, working together on behalf of their California clients, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier and another couple, Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami.

They argued that the Supreme Court should strike down a state law, called Proposition 8, which stated that marriage is between a man and a woman. The law, approved by California voters in 2008, overrode a state Supreme Court decision that allowed for same-sex marriage.

What is next?

The Supreme Court justices have stopped short of resolving the question of same-sex marriage nationally.

Many had expected the court to use this session to tackle the issue on a US-wide basis, rather than address it state-by-state.

Legal analysts say the court may yet take up the issue - but only after an appeals court rules in favour of a state same-sex marriage ban. That would create a dispute among the circuit courts, with the high court stepping in as referee.

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