In decisions marking a historic point in the gay rights movement and underscoring dramatic change in public opinion, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman and set the stage for gay marriage to return in California.
The court stopped short of saying same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry, and opponents vowed to fight to protect the states — including Florida — that ban the practice, insisting the battle is far from over.
The crowd of hundreds outside the court reflected none of the divide, chanting "DOMA is dead. DOMA is dead," when the decision overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act was read. Gay couples and supporters embraced under a blazing morning sun and sang God Bless America.
By declaring the 1996 law unconstitutional, the court made it possible for couples in the 12 states that allow gay marriage (with California likely soon to join) to get a host of federal benefits they had been denied.
"Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways," Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's ideological swing vote, wrote in the majority opinion. "DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal."
Kennedy was joined by the court's four liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
In a blistering dissent, Scalia wrote, "The Constitution does not forbid the government to enforce traditional moral and sexual norms." He also said, "By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition."
The case, United States vs. Windsor, was brought by Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old New York woman who was denied an estate tax exemption for her deceased spouse. She said it violated the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment.
During a news conference in New York on Wednesday, Windsor said the ruling made her feel "joyous, just joyous." And richer: She'll get the $363,000 she was forced to pay, plus interest.
The outcome of the victory is 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, in Florida and other states where gay marriage is banned, for 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. Immigration law focuses on where people were married, not where they live. But eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits basically depends on where a couple is living when a spouse dies. The Obama administration could also shape through executive orders which benefits are available.
In the second case, Hollingsworth vs. Perry, the court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by holding that defenders of the state's gay marriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban, passed in 1998 only months after gay marriage was permitted.
Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Scalia. The other justices said the court should have decided the constitutional question.
Regardless, it means California will likely soon resume gay marriages. The appeals court said it would wait at least 25 days for the high court's judgment to be received, though new litigation could cause delays.
"We want to join the institution of marriage, not to take anything but strengthen it, to live up to its ideals," said Paul Katami, one of the plaintiffs in the case, standing on the steps before the Supreme Court with his partner, Jeffrey Zarrillo.
A little while later, President Barack Obama called them from Air Force One, en route to Africa, to offer congratulations. "Through your courage, you're helping out a whole lot of people," Obama said to them and a lesbian couple, Sandy Stier and Kris Perry.
Obama embodies the rapid change in public and political opinion on gay marriage. The president in May 2012 came out in favor of same-sex marriage after opposing it during the 2008 election.
The number of states allowing gay marriage has doubled in the past year, including three states that have voted since the court heard oral arguments in March, and public opinion polls show most Americans now support gay marriage, even if they think states should decide.
A Pew Research Center poll this month found nearly three-quarters of Americans, including a majority of those who object to gay marriage, say the legal recognition of the right is "inevitable."
But the public also favors a state-by-state approach. A New York Times/CBS News poll from earlier this month found that 60 percent want states to decide and only 33 percent want to leave it to the federal government.
Both sides said the ruling provided motivation — for gay rights advocates to seek to expand marriage rights to other states and for opponents to prevent that from happening.
"Time is not on the side of those seeking to create same-sex 'marriage,' " said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify."
Florida is already developing as a test case.
The state passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2008, but polls show voters are changing their mind. Last week, the activist group Equality Florida announced a push to reverse the ban.
Gov. Rick Scott said he will uphold the voter-approved amendment. The ruling "impacted federal law, not state law. . . . As the governor of this state, I'll uphold the law of the land, and that's the law of our state."
John Stemberger, president and general counsel of the Florida Family Policy Council, said: "America, and Florida specifically, will continue the debate and advance the truths about why marriage is between a man and a woman and why it matters for children, civil society, and the common good of society."
The court issued the rulings on the final day it was in session before summer recess, and after a string of headline-catching decisions, including striking down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act a day earlier — a decision that infuriated liberals just as the gay marriage rulings incensed conservatives.
"I believe the Supreme Court made a serious mistake today when it overstepped its important, but limited role," said Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who believes marriage should be between a man and woman only and that states should decide the issue.
People began lining up Tuesday to get one of the few seats in the courtroom, where TV cameras are not allowed. Hundreds gathered outside
"I couldn't sleep last night," said Robyn Zeiger, 61, of Silver Spring, Md., a gay rights activist since the 1970s. "I was hoping I'd be able to see this day in my lifetime. Amazing doesn't even begin to describe the emotion."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.