WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court handed two major victories Wednesday to advocates of gay marriage, ruling that same-sex couples should get the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples and clearing the way for the resumption of same-sex marriages in California, the most populous U.S. state.
READ: Supreme Court DOMA Ruling
The long-awaited rulings, both by 5-4 margins, do not mean that gay marriage will be permitted throughout the United States; most states still ban it. But they build on the momentum of the gay rights movement, with its broad shift in public attitudes, a dozen states adopting gay marriage and a president, Barack Obama, who has spoken openly in support of gay rights.
"This was discrimination enshrined in law," Obama said Wednesday. "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."
The court invalidated a part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman and thus denying married gay couples a range of tax, health and retirement benefits. Obama decided in 2011 to stop defending the 1996 law, concluding that it was legally indefensible.
The second case was a technical legal ruling that left in place a lower court's ruling striking down California's ban on gay marriage. Gov. Jerry Brown quickly ordered that marriage licenses be issued to gay couples as soon as a federal appeals court lifts its hold on the lower court ruling. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it will wait at least 25 days before allowing gay marriages to resume in California.
Obama telephoned his congratulations to the plaintiffs in the California case from Air Force One en route to Africa.
Outside the Supreme Court, supporters of same-sex marriage burst into cheers and wept openly upon hearing the rulings. Chants of "Thank you" and "USA" came as the plaintiffs in the cases descended the marbled steps.
The entertainment industry, which has long been a vocal supporter of marriage equality, declared it a landmark day. "I am standing on the right side of history," singer Alicia Keys tweeted.
Opponents of same-sex marriage, who insist that marriage should be only between a man and a woman, were loud in their disapproval. "We are devastated that the Supreme Court succumbed to political pressure by voting to weaken the sacred institution," said Rev. William Owens, president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors.
The government shifted toward complying with the new reality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon would begin the process to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of military members as soon as possible. Defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the active duty, National Guard and Reserves. It's unclear how many of those are married.
The repeal of the ban on openly gay military service took effect in September 2011.
Wednesday's outcome is clear for people who were married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage. They now are eligible for federal benefits.
The picture is more complicated for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married, or who have moved from a gay marriage state since being wed.
Their eligibility depends on the benefits they are seeking. For instance, immigration law focuses on where people were married, not where they live. But eligibility for government pension benefits basically depends on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.
The rulings came 10 years to the day after the court's Lawrence v. Texas decision that struck down state bans on gay sex. In his dissent at the time, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted the ruling would lead to same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage now has been adopted by 12 states and the Washington district. Another 18,000 couples were married in California during a brief period when same-sex unions were legal there.
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