ALLENWOOD — WASHINGTON — Gay-marriage advocates probably won't get everything they want from the Supreme Court. They still might get a lot.
Two historic days of argument revealed that the court is at once divided and tentative on same-sex marriage. While the justices showed little appetite for legalizing such marriages nationwide, they suggested they might allow same-sex weddings to resume in California. A majority of the nine justices also indicated they might strike down a federal law that limits benefits to married gay couples.
That outcome "would be an important step toward allowing gay marriage everywhere," said New York University law professor Barry Friedman. "It would send positive signals, it would avoid any serious backlash and, if current trends continue, it is only a matter of time" until more states allow same-sex nuptials. A ruling is likely by June.
Expectations were high among gay-marriage supporters in the weeks leading up to the arguments. Already buoyed by victories at the polls in four states last year, the movement gained more momentum when briefs filed by companies such as Apple and Morgan Stanley, leading Republicans like Jon Huntsman, and the Obama administration called on the court to back gay marriage.
From the start of this week's arguments, the March 26 session on California's Proposition 8, it was clear that the court was reluctant to establish a nationwide right to same-sex unions. The 2008 voter-passed initiative halted gay marriage in the state five months after California's highest court had legalized it.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court's likely swing vote, asked whether the justices made a mistake when they agreed to review the law. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wondered aloud if it was too soon for the court to rule on gay marriage.
"We let issues perk, and so we let racial segregation perk for 50 years from 1898 to 1954," she said.