The US Supreme Court yesterday handed a significant victory to gay rights advocates by recognising that married gay men and women are eligible for federal benefits and paving the way for same-sex marriage in California.
The court, however, fell short of a landmark ruling endorsing a fundamental right for gay people to marry.
The two cases, both decided on 5-4 votes, concerned the constitutionality of a key part of a federal law, the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), that denied benefits to same-sex married couples and a California state law enacted in 2008, called Proposition 8, that banned gay marriage.
President Barack Obama applauded the Supreme Court decision and directed Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure the ruling is implemented.
"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," Obama said in a written statement.
Video: Plaintiff in same-sex marriage case 'cried' after victory
Gay marriage is an issue that stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere. Gay marriage advocates celebrated outside the courthouse. A huge cheer went up as word arrived that DOMA had been struck down. "DOMA is dead!" the crowd chanted, as couples hugged and cried.
"Our marriage has not been recognised until today," said Patricia Lambert, 59, who held her wife, Kathy Mulvey, 47. A South African, Lambert said she no longer would have to worry about being forced to leave the country if her work visa expired.
The court struck down the federal law as a violation of the US Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law but ducked a ruling on Proposition 8 by finding that supporters of the law did not have standing to appeal a federal district court ruling that struck the law down.
While the ruling on DOMA was clear-cut, questions remained about what exactly the Proposition 8 ruling will mean on the ground. There is likely to be more litigation over whether the district court ruling applies statewide.
After hearing of the California ruling outside the courthouse, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the fight for gay marriage would head back to the states.
"We take it to the states - state by state, legislature by legislature, governor by governor, and constitutional amendment by constitutional amendment," he said.
In the DOMA case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the federal law, as passed by Congress in 1996, violated the US Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.
Twelve of the 50 states and the District of Columbia recognise gay marriage; more than 30 states prohibit it, and others have laws somewhere in-between.
Section 3 of the Defence of Marriage Act limited the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal benefits. By striking down Section 3, the court cleared the way to more than 1,100 federal benefits, rights and burdens linked to marriage status.
As a result of yesterday's ruling, New Yorker Edith Windsor, who was married to a woman and sued the government to get the federal estate tax deduction available to heterosexuals when their spouses die, will be able to claim a US$363,000 tax refund.