The Supreme Court agreed Friday to rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, a step it refused to take less than two years ago when it let stand a federal ruling allowing those unions in California but declined to make marriages between gay and lesbian couples legal throughout the land.

Now that 36 states and the District of Columbia, holding about three-fourths of the country’s population, permit same-sex marriages, legal experts believe the high court is ready to settle the matter once and for all.

Faced with a split in the appellate courts, the justices will hear 2½ hours of oral arguments in April and issue a ruling before the court term ends in June.

“We are poised for a very important decision that will settle once and for all one of the great civil rights questions of our time,” said Richard Socarides, a onetime senior adviser on gay issues to former President Bill Clinton at a time when Clinton felt a political need to sign the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. That measure denied federal benefits to same-sex couples and allowed states to refuse to recognize such marriages from other states.

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