FILE - In this March 27, 2013, file photo a woman holds up a sign that reads "REPEAL DOMA," the Defense of Marriage Act in front of a group from Alabama, clasped in prayer in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, as the court hears arguments on gay marriage. Sometime this early July, the Court will announce the outcomes in cases on Californian's ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
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.
The rulings in two cases, 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 in America, where there has been a broad shift in public attitudes, a dozen states adopting gay marriage and a U.S. president, Barack Obama, who has advocated for gay rights.'
In one case the court invalidated provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that has prevented marriage gay couples from receiving a range of tax, health and retirement benefits that are generally available to married people. The vote was 5-4. Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote between the court's conservative and liberal wings, wrote the majority opinion.
The second case was a technical legal ruling that did not address the issues of same-sex marriage. The panel left in place a lower court's ruling striking own California's ban on gay marriage. It found that the defenders of the ban did not have the right to appeal the decision. But that ruling probably will allow state officials to order the resumption of same-sex unions in about a month.
President Barack Obama praised the court's ruling on the federal marriage act which he said "was discrimination enshrined in law."
"It treated loving, committed gay couples and lesbians 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."
Outside the court, supporters of same-sex marriage burst into cheers and some wept openly upon hearing the decision. Others in the crowd hugged and others jumped up and down
Chants of "Thank you" and "USA" came from the crowd as the plaintiffs in the cases descended the court's marbled steps.
Obama telephoned his congratulations to the plaintiffs in the California case from Air Force One en route to Africa.
In his majority opinion in the marriage case, Kennedy said, "under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened by reason of government decree in visible and public ways."
"DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal," he said.
Same-sex marriage 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.
The 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.
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