GAY RIGHTS ; Scalia, Kennedy Central to Supreme Court Showdown

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON - For more than two decades, the defining battles within the Supreme Court over social and moral controversies have been fought between two Catholics appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

Justice Antonin Scalia believes the law can and should enforce moral standards, including criminal bans on abortion and on "homosexual conduct" that many "believe to be immoral and destructive."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is a libertarian conservative who believes the Constitution protects the freedom of individuals to "make personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing and education."

Now the ideological fight between the conservative giants is set for another round. The two 76-year-olds are to some extent likely to be on opposite sides this spring when the justices meet to decide whether the government can refuse marriage and federal benefits to gays and lesbians.

The two have much in common. Born in 1936, they graduated from high school in the early 1950s and excelled at Harvard Law School, where they were a year apart. They were Republicans who rose through the legal ranks. When appointed to the court, both bought homes in McLean, Va.

They agree on much. Both voted to strike down President Obama's health-care law as an overreach by the government. Scalia joined Kennedy's majority opinion in the Citizens United case that freed corporate and union spending on political ads.

But Kennedy, the libertarian, and Scalia, the social conservative, clash fiercely over the court's role in deciding moral controversies.

The two split 20 years ago when the court's conservative bloc was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion. Although personally opposed to abortion, Kennedy switched sides in spring 1992 and cast a crucial vote to uphold a woman's right to choose. "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code," Kennedy wrote.

In the past, Scalia has accused Kennedy of having "signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda." Scalia is likely to have the votes of fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and probably Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. …