Supporters of same-sex marriage in the United States won two victories Wednesday at the Supreme Court with potentially far-reaching legal and political consequences.
Just after the decisions were made public, chants of “USA” and “thank you” from gay marriage supporters filled the air outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
In a five-to-four decision, the high court struck down a federal law passed in 1996 known as the Defense of Marriage Act that barred same-sex couples from receiving federal tax, health and pension benefits.
Watch related video by VOA's Carolyn Presutti
The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and was joined by the court’s four liberal-leaning members. The court’s four leading conservatives were in the minority.
Kennedy cited the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law in striking down a law that barred federal benefits to same-sex couples who were married in states where same-sex marriages are legal.
The case was brought by 84-year old Edie Windsor who was denied a federal tax break given to married couples because the federal law did not recognize her marriage to her wife, Thea, who died in 2009.
“And to the justices of the Supreme Court, thank you for affirming the principle of equal justice under the law," Windsor said to reporters in New York City.
"To all of the gay people and their supporters who have cheered me on, thank you, thank you, thank you! I am sure Thea is thanking you too.”
Video report on reaction to court decision
In a second case, the Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California. By a five-to-four decision, the high court ruled that defenders of the state’s gay marriage ban known as Proposition 8 did not have the legal standing to bring a challenge to a lower court ruling that struck the law down.
That decision was welcomed by plaintiff Sandy Stier, who can now marry her partner, Kris Perry, in California.
“We thank the justices for overturning DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], she said. "It is so, so important for us and for all families. And we thank the justices for letting us get married in California, but that is not enough. It has got to go nationwide and we can not wait for that day!”
The court rulings do not establish a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. But the DOMA decision bars the federal government from treating same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples. Prior to Wednesday's ruling on California, same-sex marriage was legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia.
Opponents of gay marriage were disappointed with the two decisions, including Reverend Rob Schenck, who represents an organization of evangelical Christians.
“One thing true about today’s court decisions on marriage, they do not change the biblical or timeless truth of the nature of marriage as between a man and a woman," he said.
Same-sex-marriage opponents also vowed to fight on, including Congressman Tim Huelskamp, a conservative Republican from Kansas.
“The court has taken it upon itself the attempt, a radical attempt, to redefine marriage," Huelskamp said. "In this decision the courts have allowed the desires of adults to trump the needs of children. Every child deserves a mommy and a daddy.”
President Barack Obama welcomed the court’s DOMA decision. First on Twitter, then later, in a written statement.Obama said the decision has righted a wrong and the country is better off for it.
Today's DOMA ruling is a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality
The Republican Speaker of the House, Congressman John Boehner, said he was disappointed by the DOMA decision, but added that a robust national debate over marriage will continue despite these latest rulings.