Cissie Bonini holds up a rainbow flag as she waves to cars driving by in the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. In a major victory for gay rights, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples and cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Updated: June 27, 2013 2:12AM
WASHINGTON — Two landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court gave legally married gay couples equal federal standing with all other married Americans and cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California, the most populous state. It wasn’t the sweeping ruling to allow same-sex couples to marry anywhere sought by gay rights advocates, but they quickly said they’d be back in court soon to pursue that goal.
Wednesday’s rulings, both by narrow 5-4 majorities, sidestepped the larger question of whether banning gay marriage is unconstitutional, leaving a nationwide patchwork of laws that outlaw same-sex unions in roughly three dozen states. But they did signal the rapid shift across America toward acceptance of gay marriage. Most polls now show majority support for the right of gays to marry.
“This was discrimination enshrined in law,” President Barack Obama said after the rulings. “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 that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and denied married gay couples a range of tax, health and retirement benefits. Obama decided in 2011 that the federal government would stop defending the 1996 law, concluding that it was legally indefensible.
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.”
The federal government shifted Wednesday 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 military, but it’s unclear how many are married.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pledged in a statement to extend immigration benefits to gay married couples. That means that U.S. citizens or permanent residents with foreign spouses would be able to sponsor their partners for U.S. residency, like straight married Americans can.
The court’s rulings have no direct effect on the constitutional amendments in 29 states that limit marriage to heterosexual couples. In a handful of politically moderate states such as Oregon, Nevada and Colorado those amendments could be overturned by ballot measures, but that’s considered highly unlikely in more conservative states.
The Supreme Court also left in place a lower court’s ruling striking own California’s ban on gay marriage. Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered that marriage licenses be issued to gay couples as soon as a federal appeals court allows it. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it will wait at least 25 days before allowing gay marriages to resume in California.
Same-sex marriage now has been adopted by 12 states and the Washington capital district. Another 18,000 couples were married in California during a brief period when same-sex unions were legal there. Six states have adopted same-sex marriage in the past year alone.
Supporters of same-sex marriage cheered and wept upon hearing the rulings. 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.
Advocates already anticipated their next trip to the high court, which they believe will be needed to legalize same-sex unions in all 50 states.
The Human Rights Campaign’s president, Chad Griffin, said his goal is to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide within five years through a combination of ballot measures, court challenges and expansion of anti-discrimination laws.
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.
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 Social Security pension survivor benefits basically depend 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.
The battle over same-sex marriage in California started at San Francisco City Hall in 2004, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city clerks to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Lawsuits that resulted from his decision prompted the California Supreme Court to overturn the state’s man-woman marriage laws in 2008, making California the second state after Massachusetts to legalize gay marriage.
In anticipation, opponents of same-sex marriage qualified a proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot banning same-sex marriage. Proposition 8 passed with 52 percent of the vote in November 2008.
As hundreds of people gathered at San Francisco City Hall to applaud the Supreme Court ruling, City Attorney Dennis Herrera recalled how many fellow Democrats had criticized the action by him and Newsom as “too fast, too soon, too much.”
“Well heck, now we have 12 states and the District of Columbia that have marriage equality, and now California will have it restored once again,” he said.
Associated Press writers Connie Cass, Jessica Gresko and Bethan McKernan contributed to this report. McKernan reported from New York.