TODAY   |  December 08, 2012

Same-sex marriage goes to high court

The Supreme Court will take its first serious look at same-sex marriages. The justices will consider if the federal government can refuse to recognize them in states where they're legal, and what's to become of them in California. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> the supreme court will tackle the hot button issue of same-sex marriage. justices will weigh in on one of the most talked about issues of the day, whether same-sex couples have the same civil rights as everyone else, specifically the right to marry. justice correspondent pete williams is in our washington bureau with more. good morning.

>> reporter: the supreme court has never before agreed to take a serious look at same-sex marriages, but now it will. and the justices will consider two questions. can the federal government refuse to recognize them in the state where is they're already legal and what's to become of them in california ? just a day after washington state became the latest allowing gay couples to get married, the supreme court said it will delve into one of the nation's most hotly debated issues.

>> the highest court in the land has decided to take up what will be one of the biggest civil rights cases that this court could ever hear.

>> reporter: the court agreed to take up the legal battle over california 's proposition 8 passed by voters four years ago, ending same-sex marriage in the state. the federal appeals court ruled the ban unconstitutional on grounds that applied only in california , but now that the supreme court is weighing in, the justices could get to the more basic issue -- can any state ban same-sex marriage? nine now permit it and soon will. so does washington, d.c. the court also agreed to hear a challenge to the federal defense of marriage act . it defines marriage as "only a legal union between one man and one woman." the law had a big effect on edie windsor of new york, who married thea spire in 2011 . when spire died two years later, the irs sent a tax bill for $350,000 because it did not consider them to be married.

>> it was the injustice. i couldn't believe that they were making a stranger of this person i lived with and loved for 43-something years.

>> reporter: under that law, same-sex couples who are legally married are denied about 1,000 federal benefits that other married couples get. after first supporting the defense of marriage act , the obama administration concluded last year that it violates the constitution.

>> we cannot defend the federal government poking its nose into what states are doing, and putting the thumb on the scale against same-sex couples.

>> reporter: house republicans are now taking up the law's legal defense . supporters say it helps preserve traditional marriage .

>> unions of two men or two women are not the same thing as a marriage between a man and a woman. and only marriage between a man and a woman can connect children to their mother and father and their parents to the children.

>> reporter: the fact that the court has agreed to take up both of these cases, including the one from california , could mean that the justices are prepared to get to the heart of the same-sex marriage issue in the constitution. and that might result in what would essentially be the roe v. wade of gay rights . lester?