WASHINGTON — In a historic day for gay rights, the Supreme Court gave the nation's legally married gay couples equal federal footing with all other married Americans on Wednesday 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 anywhere in the country. But in two rulings, both by bare 5-4 majorities, the justices gave gay 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-gay 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 in 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 gay 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 gay 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 gay marriage states to 30 percent. Six states have adopted same-sex marriage in the past year, amid a rapid evolution in public opinion that now shows majority support for the right to marry in most polls.
The 12 other states are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
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 gay marriage state 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.
This confusing array of regulations is reflected more broadly in the disparate treatment of gay couples between states. And the court's decision did not touch on another part of the federal marriage law that says a state does not have to recognize a same-sex marriage performed elsewhere.
Indeed, the outcome of the cases had supporters of gay marriage already anticipating their next trip to the high court, which they reason will be needed to legalize same-sex unions in all 50 states.
The Human Rights Campaign's president, Chad Griffin, said his goal is to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide within five years through a combination of ballot measures, court challenges and expansion of anti-discrimination laws.
The rulings came 10 years to the day after the court's Lawrence v. Texas decision that struck down state bans on gay sex. In his dissent at the time, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted the ruling would lead to same-sex marriage.