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2014 marked a big shift for gay marriage. At the start of the year, 18 states and Washington, D.C., allowed same-sex couples to marry. Today, the majority of states have legalized it - 35, with Florida set to join that number on Monday. And there's a strong possibility that the issue will go before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: A year ago, activists in the legal and political battle over same-sex marriage called 2013 a banner year for their cause. Today, they're calling 2014 a super banner year.
KATE KENDALL: This moment that we are in is nothing any of us could have predicted.
GONZALES: Kate Kendall is executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights.
KENDALL: Just barely 10 years ago, there was not a jurisdiction in this country were a same-sex couple could legally marry. And now, just a little over 10 years, 35 states...
GONZALES: Here's why Kendall and other supporters of same-sex marriage are so optimistic their side will ultimately prevail. State laws banning same-sex marriage were struck down this year by federal judges across the country. At the appeals court level, four circuit courts ruled in favor of gay marriage. And then in October, the Supreme Court rejected without comment petitions to review those lower court rulings. Ned Flaherty is a Boston-based marriage-equality activist who tracks court decisions.
NED FLAHERTY: It was the first time that the Supreme Court had the opportunity to say, we're going to let a whole set of marriage rulings in lower courts stay just the way they are. That had not happened before, so it was a new type of progress that had not been seen.
GONZALES: But barely a month later, judges in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals went the other way. They upheld laws banning same-sex marriage in four states - Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. That created a new conflict among the circuit courts - some in favor of gay marriage, one against. It was a game changer, says Chapman University law professor John Eastman, who opposes same-sex marriage.
JOHN EASTMAN: I think that the proponents of redefining marriage are overly optimistic in their anticipation of an ultimate ruling in their favor.
GONZALES: Ultimately, both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage agree the Sixth Circuit's decision increases the likelihood that the Supreme Court will have to step in. Still, there's no way of knowing which, if any, cases the high court might consider. Among the couples waiting to hear are Thomas Kostura and Ijpe DeKoe of Memphis. They were married in New York two years ago, just before DeKoe, an Army sergeant, was deployed to Afghanistan. Upon his return, he was stationed at NSA Mid-South Naval Base in Tennessee. And Kostura says he wasn't sure how he would be accepted as a military spouse.
THOMAS KOSTURA: What surprised me was how welcoming everyone I met in Tennessee was and how they themselves respected our marriage. Really, at this point, it's only been the state who hasn't recognized our marriage.
GONZALES: Kostura and DeKoe filed suit along with two other same-sex couples to have their marriages recognized by the state of Tennessee. DeKoe says no couple should have to base a job choice on how a state is going to treat their marriage.
IJPE DEKOE: Yes, in my case, it's military, but any couple that marries anywhere should be able to move to Tennessee without a problem.
GONZALES: Amid the speculation over whether the high court might take a same-sex marriage case, another potential front in the cultural war over marriage is slowly emerging. In South Carolina, for example, there's a bill that would allow judges and other public officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses if it violates their religious beliefs. Chapman University law professor John Eastman says he expects similar moves in other states to preserve the traditional definition of marriage as between only a man and a woman.
EASTMAN: As long as there's a fight to redefine the institution of marriage that runs contrary your human nature, human nature's going to have a way of fighting back.
GONZALES: Eastman says he can foresee the Supreme Court could ultimately allow different states to have different laws on marriage. In January, the justices are expected to decide whether they will hear a case and possibly issue a decision by the summer. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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