NBC NEWS

By Pete Williams and Erin McClam, NBC News

In a pair of landmark decisions, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the 1996 law blocking federal recognition of gay marriage, and it allowed gay marriage to resume in California by declining to decide a separate case.

The court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to gay couples who are legally married in their states, including Social Security survivor benefits, immigration rights and family leave.

Justice Anthony Kennedywriting for the majority in a 5-4 decision, said that the act wrote inequality into federal law and violated the Fifth Amendment’s protection of equal liberty.

“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal,” he wrote.

In the second case, the court said that it could not rule on a challenge to Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage in California passed by voters there in 2008, because supporters of the ban lacked the legal standing to appeal a lower court’s decision against it.

The court did not rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage, but the effect of the decision will be to allow same-sex marriage to resume in California. That decision was also 5-4, written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

It was not clear when same-sex marriages would resume in California. Los Angeles County said in a statement that it was waiting for a technical step by lower courts — the lifting of a stay that stopped gay marriage in California — but was prepared to begin issuing marriage licenses and performing ceremonies for gay couples.

The two rulings, released minutes apart, were greeted by jubilant cheers outside the Supreme Court, where crowds of gay-marriage supporters waved rainbow banners and flags bearing symbols of equality, and at City Hall in San Francisco.

“The underlying message, I think, is that these are marriages, these are relationships, that are worthy of equal respect,” said Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court analyst for NBC News. “It really does send a powerful message to the country that this is something that deserves fair treatment.

President Barack Obama placed a phone call from Air Force One to the two gay couples who had challenged Proposition 8. He told them, “We’re proud of you guys.” Paul Katami, one of the challengers, invited the president to his wedding to his partner, Jeff Zarrillo.

David Boies, a lawyer who argued against Proposition 8, said that the rulings took the country closer to realizing the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee that all men are created equal.

“It’s a wonderful day for America,” he said.

The decisions were handed down 10 years to the day after the court decided Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down anti-sodomy laws across the country. They also came just ahead of the weekend when many large cities celebrate gay pride by observing the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, considered the beginning of the gay rights movement.

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CALIFORNIA’S GOV. GERRY BROWN ORDERS SAME-SEX MARRIAGE TO RESUME  AS SOON AS APPEALS COURT BAN IS LIFTED