WASHINGTON: In landmark rulings for gay rights, the US Supreme Court struck down a law denying federal benefits to homosexual couples and cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California.
Cheers rang out on both coasts among gay marriage supporters after the historic decisions Wednesday, with a large crowd celebrating outside the Supreme Court in Washington and thousands rejoicing in San Francisco and New York.
The nine justices however stopped short of explicitly legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
In a 5-4 decision, the court first struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to married gay and lesbian couples by strictly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
“DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment” of the Constitution, read the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
President Barack Obama, currently traveling in Africa, hailed the decision. “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,” he said in a statement.
DOMA denied married gay and lesbians a raft of federal benefits that straight couples take for granted, from tax breaks to family hospital visits and the ability to sponsor a spouse for a residence visa.
The court also said a case on Proposition 8, a 2008 California voter initiative prohibiting same-sex marriage in the nation’s most populous state, was improperly brought before them.
That 5-4 decision enabled the justices to dodge the thorny issue of whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, and means that gay marriages will likely resume in California.
Twelve US states plus the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage, but about 30 states have decreed that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman.
Obama is the first serving US president to come out publicly in favor of marriage equality.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president had telephoned 84-year-old Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case, and “congratulated her on this victory, which was a long time in the making.”
Obama also called Chad Griffin, head of the Human Rights Campaign, the leading US lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, and the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case to congratulate them on a “tremendous victory.”
Following the DOMA ruling, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said spouses of gays and lesbians in the military would get the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts “as soon as possible.”
Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law when he was president in 1996 but later called for its reversal, applauded the ruling. “Discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union,” he said.
US social conservatives however were outraged.
“Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” said the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which urged Americans to pray to God for a review of the Supreme Court’s “wrong” decision.