WASHINGTON — In a historic day for gay rights, the Supreme Court gave the nation's legally married gay couples equal federal footing with all other married Americans on Wednesday and also cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California.
In deciding its first cases on the issue, the high court did not issue the sweeping declaration sought by gay rights advocates that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry anywhere in the country. But in two rulings, both by bare 5-4 majorities, the justices gave gay marriage supporters encouragement in confronting the nationwide patchwork of laws that outlaw such unions in roughly three dozen states.
Gay-rights supporters cheered and hugged outside the court. Opponents said they mourned the rulings and vowed to keep up their fight.
In the first of the narrow rulings in its final session of the term, the court wiped away part of a federal anti-gay marriage law, the Defense of Marriage Act, that has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits that are otherwise available to married couples.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the four liberal justices, said the purpose of the law was to impose a disadvantage and "a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states."
President Barack Obama praised the court's ruling against the federal marriage act, labeling the law "discrimination enshrined in law."
"It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people," Obama said in a statement. "The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was disappointed in the outcome of the federal marriage case and hoped states continue to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Boehner, as speaker, had stepped in as the main defender of the law before the court after the Obama administration declined to defend it.
The other case, dealing with California's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, was resolved by an unusual lineup of justices in a technical legal fashion that said nothing about gay marriage. But the effect was to leave in place a trial court's declaration that California's Proposition 8 ban was unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Roberts, speaking for the 5-4 majority, said the private sponsors of Proposition 8 did not have legal standing to appeal after the ballot measure was struck down by a federal judge in San Francisco.
"We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to," he said. "We decline to do so for the first time here."
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan joined to form the majority.
The court's action, while not a sweeping ruling, sends the case back to California, where state and federal judges and the state's top officials have said same-sex marriage is a matter of equal rights.
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. That will take least 25 days, the appeals court said.
California, where gay marriage was briefly legal in 2008, would be the 13th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex couples to marry and would raise the share of the U.S. population in gay marriage states to 30 percent.
The 12 other states are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
The day's rulings are a clear victory 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 Social Security survivor benefits basically depend on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.
Outside the court, some in the crowd hugged and others jumped up and down just after 7 a.m. PDT when the DOMA decision was announced.
The federal marriage law had been struck down by several federal courts, and the justices chose to take up the case of 84-year-old Edith Windsor of New York, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.
Windsor, who goes by Edie, married Thea Spyer in 2007 after doctors told them Spyer would not live much longer. Spyer had suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. She left everything she had to Windsor.
Windsor would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man. Now she is eligible for a refund.
In New York City's Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, where a riot in 1969 sparked the gay rights movement, erupted in cheers and whooping.
Mary Jo Kennedy, 58 was there with her wife Jo-Ann Shain, 60, and their daughter Aliya Shain, 25.
She came with a sign that could be flipped either way and was holding up the side that says "SCOTUS made our family legal".
They have been together 31 years and got married the day it became legal in New York.
Others were not celebrating.
"We mourn for America's future, but we are not without hope," said Tim Wildmon, president of American Family Association, in a statement.
Said. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council: "Time is not on the side of those seeking to create same-sex 'marriage.' As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify."