WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Wednesday handed a significant victory to gay rights advocates by ruling that married gay men and women are eligible for federal benefits and paving the way for same-sex marriage in California.
The court, however, fell short of a landmark ruling endorsing a fundamental right for gay people to marry.
The two cases, both decided on 5-4 votes, concerned the constitutionality of a key part of a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that denied benefits to same-sex married couples and a California state law enacted in 2008, called Proposition 8, that banned gay marriage.
The court struck down a central part of DOMA and let stand a lower-court ruling throwing out California's voter-approved ban on gay marriage.
The Supreme Court rulings come amid rapid progress for advocates of gay marriage in recent months and years in the United States and internationally. Opinion polls show a steady increase in US public support for gay marriage.
President Barack Obama applauded the court's DOMA decision and directed US Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure the ruling is implemented.
“We are a people who declared that we are all created equal, and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama, the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage, said in a written statement.
Obama said the ruling applies only to civil marriages and that how religious institutions define and consecrate marriages has always been up to those institutions.
Gay marriage is an issue that stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere. Gay marriage advocates celebrated outside the courthouse. An enormous cheer went up as word arrived that DOMA had been struck down. “DOMA is dead!” the crowd chanted, as couples hugged and cried.
“Our marriage has not been recognized until today,” said Patricia Lambert, 59, who held her wife, Kathy Mulvey, 47. A South African, Lambert said she no longer would have to worry about being forced to leave the country if her work visa expired.
The court struck down the federal law as a violation of the US Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law but ducked a ruling on Proposition 8 by finding that supporters of the law did not have standing to appeal a federal district court ruling that struck the law down.
While the ruling on DOMA was clear-cut, questions remained about what exactly the Proposition 8 ruling will mean on the ground. There is likely to be more litigation over whether the district court ruling applies state-wide.
After hearing of the California ruling outside the courthouse, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the fight for gay marriage would head back to the states.
“We take it to the states - state by state, legislature by legislature, governor by governor, and constitutional amendment by constitutional amendment,” he said.
Defenders of California's ban on gay marriage vowed to seek continued enforcement until a state-wide order is issued.
In the DOMA case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the federal law, as passed by Congress in 1996, violated the US Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy, often the court's swing vote in close decisions, also said the law imposes “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia both wrote dissenting opinions. Roberts himself wrote the Proposition 8 opinion, ruling along procedural lines with the court split in an unusual way.
Before the ruling, 12 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia had recognized gay marriage. Three of those dozen - Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island - legalised gay marriage this year. California would be the 13th state to allow it.
Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act limited the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal benefits. By striking down Section 3, the court cleared the way to more than 1,100 federal benefits, rights and burdens linked to marriage status.
As a result of Wednesday's ruling, Edith Windsor of New York, who was married to a woman and sued the government to get the federal estate tax deduction available to heterosexuals when their spouses pass away, will be able to claim a $363,000 tax refund.