The United States Supreme Court has struck down part a federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In its second ruling, the court paved the way for gay marriage in California.
In a 5-4 vote, the US Supreme Court ruled part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) - which did not recognize homosexual couples as equal to heterosexual couples under the law - unconstitutional. The ruling now makes homosexual partners eligible for the same legal benefits given to heterosexual couples under federal law.
The law had imposed "a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. Twelve states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex unions.
"Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways," Kennedy wrote.
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.
The case before the Supreme Court was brought by Edith Windsor, whose marriage to Thea Spyer was recognized under New York law, but not under federal law because of DOMA. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was forced to pay estate tax worth $363,000 (284,000 euros) because her marriage was not recognized by the federal government. She later sued, seeking a refund.
Windsor's lawyers argued that the US government had no role in defining marriage, which is traditionally left to the states.
President Barack Obama praised the decision: "This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people."
"[The Supreme Court] has righted a wrong, and our country is better off for it," he said, adding that he had already told officials in his administration to begin working toward implementing the changes to the current federal law.
Court favors California judge
The second landmark case before the court sought to establish whether California had illegally banned gay marriage in a 2008 referendum, known as Proposition 8. The change came shortly after the California Supreme Court had already ruled it legal.
On Wednesday, the justices of the United States' highest court declined to rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8. Instead, they voted 5-4 that the defenders of the ban did not have the legal standing to appear before the Supreme Court and appeal lower court rulings which had already struck down the gay marriage ban.
"We have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the 9th Circuit," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, referring to a federal appeals court which had favored the plaintiffs.
By sidestepping a broad ruling, the top court allowed the ruling from the initial trial to remain intact, thereby paving the way for Californian officials to reinstate the legislation which allows same-sex couples to wed.
kms/dr (AP, AFP, Reuters)