WASHINGTON -- In a historic day for gay rights, the Supreme Court Wednesday gave the nation's legally married gay couples equal federal footing with all other married Americans 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 in any state. But in two rulings, both by slim 5-4 majorities, the justices gave same-sex 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.
In the first of the narrow rulings in its final session of the term, the court wiped away part of a federal anti-same-sex 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." "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 with 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 same-sex 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.
California, where same-sex marriage was briefly legal in 2008, would be the 13th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex couples to marry and would raise the share of the U.S. population in same-sex marriage states to 30 percent. Six states have adopted same-sex marriage in the past year, amid a rapid shift in public opinion that now shows majority support for the right to marry in most polls.
The day's rulings are 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 state supporting same-sex marriage 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 survivor benefits basically depend on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.
What the same-sex marriage decision means
There are more than 1,000 federal laws in which marital status matters, covering everything from income and inheritance taxes to health benefits and pensions. In states where gay marriage is legal, same-sex couples may actually be looking forward to filing their income taxes next April -- married, filing jointly.
BENEFITS FOR SPOUSES. It seems clear that legally married same-sex couples where one member is employed by the federal government are entitled to spousal benefits, just the same as any other married couple. For other legally married couples who don't live in states where same-sex marriage is recognized, there's some question as to whether the "state of celebration" or "state of residence" matters. Usually, the former is the standard used, meaning a marriage is valid if it's valid in the state it was celebrated. That would mean most legally married same-sex couples, regardless of where they live, are entitled to spousal benefits.
TAX LAWS. Some areas, such as tax law, may require additional rule-making before same-sex couples are treated equally. "Some operate just based on policy, without getting into a regulation or statute, so those can be modified very quickly," Tara Borelli, an attorney at Lambda Legal. "Others require rule-making."
OTHER STATUS CHANGES. Others require statutory changes. Borelli notes Social Security will probably have to be changed by Congress for same-sex couples to be treated equally.
BINATIONAL COUPLES. It does open the door for binational same-sex couples to be treated equally under the law. That means that comprehensive immigration reform probably need not include a provision specifically tailored to making sure binational partners of same-sex couples can get visas automatically, the same as opposite-sex partners.
-- The Washington Post