The US Supreme Court gave 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 was not a sweeping ruling to allow same-sex couples to marry anywhere, but gay rights advocates quickly said they would be back in court soon to pursue that goal.
Wednesday’s landmark rulings, both by narrow 5-4 majorities, sidestepped the larger question of whether banning gay marriage is unconstitutional, leaving in place a nationwide patchwork of laws that outlaw same-sex unions in roughly three dozen states.
However, they did signal the rapid shift across the US toward acceptance of gay marriage; most polls now show majority support for the right of gays to marry.
“This was discrimination enshrined in law,” US 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.
US 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 quickly shifted on Wednesday toward complying with the new reality. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon would begin the process to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of military members as soon as possible.
US defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the military, but it is unclear how many are married.
US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano pledged in a statement to extend immigration benefits to gay married couples. That means that US citizens or permanent residents with foreign spouses would be able to sponsor their partners for US residency, like straight married Americans can.
The Supreme Court also left in place a lower court’s ruling striking down California’s ban on gay marriage. California Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered that marriage licenses be issued to gay couples as soon as a federal appeals court allows it.
The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals said it would wait at least 25 days before allowing gay marriages to resume in California.