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.
Gay rights advocate Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court at sun up in Washington, Wednesday. In two separate and significant victories for gay rights, the Supreme Court 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.
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."
Gay couples in Iowa welcome High Court ruling
By CATHERINE LUCEY
The Associated Press
DES MOINES - Gay married couples in Iowa celebrated a landmark Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that they said means same-sex couples finally will be able to realize benefits afforded to other married people.
Same-sex couples have been able to wed in Iowa since a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage. But because the federal Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman, those couples are blocked from collecting a range of federal benefits available to married people, such as filing joint taxes, receiving breaks on estate taxes and receiving Social Security survivor benefits.
Chris Patterson, who lives in West Des Moines with her married partner and two young children, said she felt relief and joy over the ruling.
"It was a long time coming and we both feel pretty amazing," said Patterson, 41, who takes care of their kids. "I think it's pretty amazing for my family and my kids and I think it's a step forward. I'm at loss for words."
Between 2009 and 2011, about 1,500 same-sex couples from Iowa were married in the state, the third to offer gay marriage. More out-of-state couples also have wed in Iowa, one of 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have approved same-sex unions.
Jason Dinesen, an accountant and a board member for gay rights group One Iowa, said that the lack of federal recognition for Iowa's same-sex married couples is a headache at tax time. He said these couples must file separate federal taxes, though they can file jointly at the state level. They also miss out on some other tax breaks; for example if a gay couple gets health insurance from one partner's employer, the coverage for the spouse may be considered taxable income.
"Life will be a lot simpler at tax time when DOMA goes away," Dinesen said.
Donna Red Wing, president of One Iowa, agreed.
"We're absolutely thrilled. Everything changes. Everything changes now," said Red Wing, who is marrying her longtime partner later this year in Iowa.
Still, Rep. Dwayne Alons, R-Hull, said he would continue his efforts to end gay marriage in Iowa. During the recent legislative session, he introduced a joint resolution signed by 34 other House Republicans proposing a change in the Iowa Constitution to ban gay marriage. The measure did not survive a self-imposed Legislative deadline this year, but could be revived in the next session.
"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. 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.