WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) -- In significant but incomplete victories for gay rights, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples and cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that has prevented married gay couples from receiving a range of tax, health and retirement benefits that are generally available to married people.
"There are over 1,000 such benefits that the federal government gives out – Social Security benefits, pension benefits, veteran benefits, immigration benefits -- the list really goes on and on," said Fordham University Law professor Joseph Landau.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion.
"Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,'' Kennedy said. "DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal."
He was joined by the court's four liberal justices.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Scalia read his dissent aloud and said the court should not have decided the case.
But, given that it did, he said, "we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation.''
President Barack Obama hailed the decision, declaring the court "has righted a wrong, and our country is better off for it.''
"This was discrimination enshrined in law,'' he said. "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.''
Acknowledging that many Americans object to gay marriage on religious grounds, he stressed that nothing in the decision changes how religious institutions define and consecrate marriage.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg also weighed in, with his comments directed at states such as New Jersey that do not recognize same-sex unions.
"Those who still stand in opposition should remember that on matters of freedom and equality, history has not remembered obstructionists kindly – not on abolition, women's suffrage, workers' rights or civil rights. The same will be true on marriage equality," he said in a statement. "The desire for equal standing has led to extraordinary advances in American freedom – it has never been defeated, and on marriage equality, it will not be defeated."
But 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.
The DOMA case centered around a New York City woman, 84-year-old Edith Windsor.
She sued the federal government after she was forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 because DOMA didn't recognize their marriage even though the state of New York did.
Windsor would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man.
She said Wednesday's ruling made her feel "joyous, just joyous!''
"I'm honored and humbled and overjoyed to be here today to represent not only the thousands of Americans whose lives have been adversely impacted by the Defense of Marriage Act, but those whose hopes and dreams have been constricted by the same discriminatory law, " she told reporters.
Wednesday's decision means the government will now have to send Windsor a $363,000 refund, plus interest.
As CBS 2's Marcia Kramer reported, Windsor could hardly make her way to the podium for a victory lap after the ruling.
"I cried," she said. "The immediate action was just tears."
She said the decision on DOMA was "the beginning of the end of the stigma; of lying about who we area. It's a different level of dignity than we had."
Windsor will now be an American history-maker, analysts said.
"Now, the marriages of same-sex couples will be on equal footing going forward with the marriages of different sex couples," Suzanne Goldberg, professor and co-director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University, told 1010 WINS. "So future same-sex couples will not face the same kind of suffering that Edie Windsor has had for several years now."
The other decision Wednesday was a technical legal ruling that said nothing at all about same-sex marriage, but left in place a trial court's declaration that California's Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.
The high court said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Scalia.
"We have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the 9th Circuit,'' Roberts said, referring to the federal appeals court that also struck down Proposition 8.
A federal appeals court says it will wait at least 25 days before allowing gay marriages to resume in California.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that it will take at least that long for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to become official.
The San Francisco-based court said it may continue to bar gay marriages even beyond that if proponents of the ban ask for a rehearing.
Same-sex marriage has been adopted by 12 states and the District of Columbia. Another 18,000 couples were married in California during a brief period when same-sex unions were legal there.
So what will this mean for New Jersey? Lawmakers challenging the current Garden State law said they will refile their case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
They said they are hoping the New Jersey courts will recognize that couples are being unfairly deprived of more than 1,000 federal rights.
Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA Provision, Dismisses Prop. 8 Case
"Today's Supreme Court decision is a game changing moment," ACLU of New Jersey executive director Udi Ofer told WCBS 880's Peter Haskell. "The only path remaining for New Jersey is a path of marriage equality."
He said the ruling makes it clear that a civil union is not the same as marriage.
"If you're in a civil union system in New Jersey, you're in a separate and unequal system," Ofer told Haskell. "Because being in a civil union in New Jersey will mean you will be ineligible for hundreds of federal benefits that will now be afforded to same-sex couples."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a same-sex marriage bill passed by state lawmakers last year.
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