The rights and federal government benefits of approximately nine million Americans hangs in the balance this week as the United States Supreme Court hears arguments for and against two landmark gay-marriage cases — over the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8.

With the apex court’s premises under a peaceful siege by hundreds of demonstrators from both sides, the question of federal and State recognition of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples was debated with as much passion outside the court as it probably was within.

Inside, the Chief Justices took up both DOMA — which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996 when public support for gay rights was relatively low — and California’s Proposition 8, a State-level ballot-box ban on recognising gay marriage that was struck down by a federal judge in San Francisco in 2009.

A verdict is not expected in either case until June.

At the moment, only nine States, including California and the District of Columbia, recognise civil unions or domestic partnerships among same-sex couples. Three states — Maryland, Maine and Washington — have passed legislation in support of gay marriage last year alone.

However, fierce resistance to official recognition of gay marriage still exists among conservatives across the nation and 30 States have constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage.

Gay and lesbian couples residing in these States do not enjoy equal rights to heterosexual couples in everything from protection from discrimination in housing, child support, adoption rights and even tax laws.