BEND, Ore. -

One of the country's most divisive topics is moving onto one of the biggest stages of debate in America.

Starting Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing its first two major cases regarding same-sex marriage: One is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The other is California's Proposition 8, a 2008 voter-approved constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

While the court has the opportunity to ban or legalize gay marriage nationwide, OSU-Cascades political science professor Jim Foster said Monday that either outcome is unlikely, but the case to watch is Prop 8.

"(The court) might craft an outcome that might overturn the proposition of Measure 8, but would only do so in ways that would confine it to California, rather than in a broad brushstroke, saying there is a national constitutional right for same-sex marriage,"Foster said in a phone interview Monday.

This week's cases and the ramifications brings to mind 1973's Roe V. Wade decision that legalized abortion, a highly controversial decision that Foster says still haunts the court.

"The court can say to itself it waded into a situation of a hornet's nest, in abortion politics of 1973," Foster said.  "And state legislators were reexamining the issue, and the court came in with a fairly broad brushstroke in Roe."

He said the end result, a ruling legalizing abortion, was controversial across the nation, which is still divided today on the topic.

"I suspect the court is going to be very weary of doing something similar," Foster said.

Some believe the court needs to proceed cautiously, including a Redmond man who thinks a rash decision could be dangerous.

"They should go a little slower," he said. "It (allowing same-sex marriage) will probably come, but if they go slower they won't have the reaction, and we'll all get together on it slowly."

He says in his 80 years, he's seen a lot of changing attitudes about gays and gay marriage, including his own.

"I like it the way's it's always been, but I'm 80 years old," he said.  "But I do certainly think the gay folks should have all the rights of everyone else."

But other say equal rights can only mean equal opportunities for marriage.

"Joy is joy and happiness is happiness, and there shouldn't be gender involved," a Bend woman said.

As to predicting how the court will rule, Foster says it's anyone's guess -- but there is one justice to keep an eye on.

"This court is deeply divided itself, and Anthony Kennedy is the justice in the middle who really has the swing vote," Foster said.

A divided nation, a divided court and one man who could decide it all.

The court will begin hearing arguments over Proposition 8 on Tuesday and the Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday.

Foster said the court will be examining the cases under the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause as well as the 10th Amendment's reserve clause.

Do you believe the court should take that broad brushstroke and legalize same-sex marriage. Take a stand in our current KTVZ.COM Poll, which you can find on the right side of our home page.