(CBS NEWS) -- The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will consider the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's ban on marriage, two cases that could have a significant impact on marriage laws across the country.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Both the first and second circuit court of appeals have struck down a provision of the law denying federal benefits, like Social Security benefits or the ability to file joint tax returns, to same-sex couples legally married. Because of these lower court rulings, DOMA has been declared unconstitutional in some regions of the country but not others -- an issue the Supreme Court should rectify.
The court will also consider California's Proposition 8, the ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage that voters passed in 2008. Prop. 8 passed after California Supreme Court granted same-sex couples the right to marry, putting California voters in the unique position of taking away rights granted by the court.
After Prop. 8 passed, a federal court followed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
The high court is expected to hear arguments in both cases and issue rulings over the summer.
By taking up the Prop. 8 case, the court has given itself the opportunity to rule on the fundamental issue of whether same-sex couples have a right to get married. Because of the unique circumstances of the case -- in which rights were taken away after they were granted by the state Supreme Court -- the court's ultimate ruling could only apply to California.
Alternatively, the court may not rule on the right to marry at all: The Supreme Court will also consider whether the proponents of Prop. 8 have any standing in court. If they don't, then the lower court rulings -- allowing same-sex marriage -- would be left standing.
While this scenario wouldn't necessarily have a nationwide impact, it would still be a significant victory for gay rights activists.