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Wedding decorations and cookies greet couples entering the Spokane County Auditor's Office to pick up their marriage licenses, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Spokane, Wash.Dan Pelle/The Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday decided to take up the sensitive issue of gay marriage, hearing challenges to a federal law denying benefits to same-sex couples and California's ban on such unions.

The highest U.S. court will likely hear arguments in the cases in March, 2013, with rulings to come in June. Same-sex marriage is currently legal in nine states and the federal capital, Washington, but barred in 30 other states.

As analysts predicted, the court took up one challenge to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman and denies federal benefits to married same-sex couples.

Those benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples but denied to gays include inheritance rights, tax breaks, filing of joint income-tax returns, and health-insurance coverage.

President Barack Obama's government does not support this view of marriage and would like the law to be overturned, but conservative campaigners are urging the Supreme Court to rule that the act is constitutional.

The specific case to be heard involves Edith Windsor, a lesbian legally married in Canada who has been told to pay tax on inheriting the estate of her deceased partner.

The Supreme Court will rule whether DOMA violates the guarantee of equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the fifth amendment of the U.S. constitution.

It will also decide if the Obama administration's position that DOMA is unconstitutional deprives the Supreme Court of jurisdiction, and whether a complaint by some U.S. lawmakers has legal standing.

This case is one on which Justice Elena Kagan – who as Mr. Obama's former solicitor-general has recused herself on some of the cases in which she had played a prior role – can take part.

Judge Kagan's participation avoids the potential for a 4-4 split on the nine-member bench.

The other case taken up was brought by supporters of Prop 8, a referendum that passed in California in 2008 that defined marriage as being between a "man and a woman" – but which was overturned by a court of appeal.

If the Supreme Court throws out their appeal, California, the country's most populous state, will in effect become the 10th state to permit gay marriage.

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the court will decide whether the 14th amendment of the U.S. constitution, which requires states to provide equal protection under the law to all people, prohibits California from banning gay marriage.

The Supreme Court will also decide whether the petitioners have legal standing in the case.

Justices did not say what they planned to do over eight other gay marriage petitions they had debated behind closed doors on Friday.

It was likely those, along with a last-minute case on the gay marriage ban in Nevada, would not be heard.

The Supreme Court could also rule that whatever decision it reaches in June should prevail over all the pending cases, not just the ones heard.

As a country, the United States appears to be slowly moving toward tolerating same-sex unions.

An opinion poll by USA Today/Gallup released this week ahead of the court's decision showed that 53 per cent of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legal, up from 40 per cent just three years ago.

Within the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender community, the poll showed that 91 per cent felt residents in their communities had become more accepting of homosexuals in recent years.

Among those whose position has evolved over this period is Mr. Obama himself, who had always backed strong protections for gay and lesbian couples but only came out openly in favour of homosexual marriage earlier this year.

"I've just concluded, for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," Mr. Obama said in May in an interview with ABC News.

The President said however that a decision on whether to legalize gay marriage should be left to individual states.