WASHINGTON -- A pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions expected today could abruptly change the legal and social landscape or blunt the hopes of gay people and activists who see themselves at the center of the last big American civil rights movement.
What's likely, though, are narrow rulings that could disappoint both gay rights activists and opponents of same-sex marriage. Both groups want clear and broad rulings on whether same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry.
As with last year's Affordable Care Act decision, justices are waiting until the last day of their session to issue rulings in the most controversial cases before them.
Hollingsworth v. Perry involves the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Meanwhile, U.S. v. Windsor asks the state whether the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages in states that have legalized such unions.
The court also will issue a ruling today in Sekhar v. U.S., a lesser-watched case involving whether advice from a lawyer can be treated as "property" that could be subject to extortion.
The court does not say in advance which decisions it will issue on which day, but today is the justices' last session day and the three opinions are outstanding.
A handful of gay rights activists were on the courthouse steps Monday and Tuesday, hoping to be there for the landmark decisions. One of them, David Baker, 24, carried a sign reading, "If I can't marry my boyfriend then I'll marry your daughter" on one side, and "Gay Mormon for marriage equality," on the other.
Mr. Baker lives in Washington now but might some day want to get married in his home state of Utah, where same-sex marriage is not recognized. He is hoping for a broad ruling that would open the doors to same-sex marriage nationwide.
Nearby, Vin Testa, a 23-year-old algebra teacher, said he was happy that gay marriage is legal in both Washington, where he now lives, and Connecticut, where he grew up.
"I have the right in both places but I'm here because other people should have that right, too," he said as he waved a rainbow flag on the steps.
For Bob Kunst, 71, of Miami, the decision is about more than marriage. Although he is in a long-term relationship with another man, he has no desire to be married, just to be treated equally. For him, the issue is taxation without representation.
Gay couples don't qualify for the same tax benefits as opposite-sex couples.
"I've never asked anybody to validate my relationship. I don't need that. I'm not interested in [the Supreme Court's] opinion about my lovemaking, but if I can't be recognized, why should I be taxed?" asked Mr. Kuntz, who is president of the activist group Shalom International.
He said he planned to return this morning.
Other gay rights advocates were expected to attend decision-watch gatherings in other parts of the country this morning.
In Pittsburgh, they will be ready to "riot or rejoice" on Liberty Avenue, Downtown.
The Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, which organized the Pittsburgh Pride celebration Downtown earlier this month, announced Tuesday that the city will close a block of Liberty Avenue so people can gather to watch coverage of the high court's decisions on an outdoor television beginning at 9:30 a.m. The area will be closed to vehicle traffic between 9 a.m. and noon for the event dubbed "Riot or Rejoice."
"This is the last group to be discriminated against, and it's time for the Supreme Court to do the right thing," Delta Foundation President Gary Van Horn said in a statement.
The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, affects a wide range of benefits for married couples including tax breaks, health insurance for spouses of federal employees and Social Security payments.
For Edith Windsor, 84, the law affected property she inherited from her deceased wife, Thea Spyer, in New York. The state assessed her $363,000 in estate taxes that she wouldn't have been billed for if her spouse was a man.
After filing suit against New York and having her case rise to the high court, Ms. Windsor has become an iconic figure in the gay rights movement, inspiring chants of "Edie! Edie! Edie!" as she emerged from the courthouse after oral arguments this spring.
She wants the court to require the federal government to treat same-sex couples the same as opposite-sex ones when they are married in states that legally recognize gay marriage.
But it isn't clear whether the justices will get to that question.
First, they must decide whether the case is properly before them. It isn't clear whether the defendants -- five members of Congress comprising the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group -- have standing. The group stood in as defendants after the Obama administration -- which has become increasingly supportive of gay rights -- refused to defend DOMA.
Gay marriage is not legal in Pennsylvania, and the state's right-leaning Legislature is unlikely to change that anytime soon. So a ruling in Ms. Windsor's favor would have no effect in Pennsylvania unless the court also issues a broad ruling in the Perry case.
The court has several options in that case, including dismissing it entirely -- a possibility Justice Anthony Kennedy raised during oral arguments in March.
The court also could issue a limited ruling that applies only to California, which is the only state to ban gay marriage after it had already been made legal. Still, even a narrow ruling could provide a template that other courts could choose to follow.
A third option is a broad ruling that states categorically can -- or cannot -- deny marriage to same-sex couples.
Staff writer Kaitlynn Riely contributed. Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published June 26, 2013 4:00 AM