Supreme Court Gay Marriage Cases: What Are They About?

One is about the Defense of Marriage Act, another seeks to strike down California's Prop 8.

By now you've probably noticed that many of your friends have changed their social network avatars to the red equals symbol that signifies marriage equality. Maybe you've seen Beyoncé's handwritten Instagram message on Tuesday that read, "If you like it you should be able to put a ring on it. #wewilluniteformarriageequality!"

Or you might have noticed the raft of support messages
 on Tuesday posted by everyone from Ben Affleck and President Obama to Evan Rachel Wood, Seth MacFarlane and "Star Trek Into Darkness" writer Damon Lindelof.

What's spurred all this action? Two Supreme Court cases that could very well change the history of same-sex marriage rights in the United States.

Here's a breakdown of the cases:

Case: Hollingsworth v. Perry:

Background: The nine justices heard arguments on Tuesday in which's Dennis Hollingsworth advocated for the upholding of California's Proposition 8, which struck down gay marriage in the state. On the other side is Kristin Perry, who was denied a license to marry her longtime partner, Sandra Stier, with whom she has four children.

What's at stake: Hollingsworth's argument boiled down to the notion that "traditional" marriage must be preserved so that children "will be born and raised in stable and enduring family units by their own mothers and fathers." Lawyers for Perry argued that marriage is a fundamental right that has nothing to do with having children and that the current system creates a second-rate class of citizens. California briefly afforded gay couples the right to marry in 2008, before Prop 8 was passed later that year.

What we know: The word from inside the court was that the justices were not inclined to make a sweeping verdict on same-sex marriage that would apply on a national basis (such as the landmark abortion ruling Roe v. Wade), but that they might make a narrower judgment that applies to California, or none at all, in which case Prop 8 would be struck down.

Verdict: A verdict is expected sometime in June.

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Case: United States v. Windsor:

Background: Edith Windsor, 83, sued to challenge the federal estate tax bill she incurred after her partner of 42 years died in 2009. The two were married in Canada in 2007 and had Windsor been married to a man, she would not have faced any estate tax bills. Under the Defense of Marriage Act bill signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton — who recently said he no longer supports the law — federal marriage benefits are available only to spouses in opposite-sex marriages.

What's at stake: The Obama administration announced in 2011 that it would not longer defend DOMA and an appeals court ruled in October that DOMA violates the Constitution's equal protection clause and that Windsor should not have had to pay the taxes.

What we know: After Wednesday's (March 27) arguments in the DOMA case, it appeared that the majority of the justices seemed skeptical about the constitutionality of DOMA, especially in light of the fact that it fails to federally recognize same-sex unions in the nine states that already allow gay marriage. At one point, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said DOMA creates "two types of marriage," with the ones in states that allow same-sex unions likened to "skim milk."

Verdict: A verdict is expected sometime in June.