WASHINGTON -- In a groundbreaking ruling for gay rights in the United States, the Supreme Court has struck down a central provision of a federal law that restricts the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman.
In a separate ruling issued moments later on June 26, the Supreme Court also cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California.
The first ruling, approved in a 5-to-4 vote by the court's justices, invalidates a provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The move means that legally married gay couples are entitled to claim the same federal tax, health, and retirement benefits as are generally available to opposite-sex married couples.
Same-sex marriage has been adopted by 12 states and Washington, D.C. Another 18,000 couples were married in California during a brief period when same-sex unions were legal there.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion of the court's majority, said the law violated the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Conservative Justice Anthony Scalia, who voted against the move, called the decision "jaw-dropping."
Gay couples and gay-rights activists across the United States rejoiced after the court's highly anticipated ruling was released.
"It's a huge victory and it's a joyous day for the loving, married couples and their families," Mark Solomon, the national campaign director at Freedom to Marry, a same-sex marriage advocacy group, told RFE/RL.
"What this ruling says is that there are no second-class citizens in America and there are also no second-class marriages."
Obama's Change Of Heart
DOMA easily passed through Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the year of his reelection.
In 2011, the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law but continued to enforce it.
In a statement, the U.S. president said in its ruling, the Supreme Court had "righted a wrong, and our country is better off for it." He also noted that the court's decision did not change "how religious institutions define and consecrate marriage."
Obama has become increasingly vocal in his support of gay rights after changing his position on the issue of gay marriage during last year's presidential race.
Many Democratic lawmakers, including the seven openly gay members of Congress, also hailed the decision. Many Republicans, like Representative Vicky Hartzler (Missouri), had a different reaction.
"We should work to promote the truth of marriage between a man and a woman," Hartzler said. "It is wise policy to uphold the reality that every child deserves a mom and a dad and society as a whole benefits when they do."
Anti-gay-marriage groups vowed to continue fighting.
A poll conducted in April by "The Wall Street Journal" and NBC News found that 53 percent of Americans favored allowing same-sex couples to wed, while 42 percent opposed. Five percent were unsure.
In its second 5-to-4 decision on June 26, the court ruled that defenders of California's Proposition 8, the state's 2008 ballot initiative banning gay marriage, did not have the right to appeal lower-court rulings that struck down the ban.
The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the ban itself.
The outcome probably will allow officials in California to order the resumption of same-sex weddings in the country's most populous state in about a month.
Obama made congratulatory phone calls to Edith Windsor, the 83-year-old plaintiff in the case against DOMA, and to the plaintiffs in the California case.
With reporting by Reuters and AP