WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a nearly two-decades old federal law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, opening the doors for married gay couples to be eligible for a litany of federal benefits.
The 5-to-4 ruling on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act deemed the law unconstitutional under the equal protection clause. The power to regulate marriage falls to the states, not the federal government, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, the critical swing vote.
“DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages,’’ Kennedy wrote. He was joined by the four liberal Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
The law imposed “a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States,’’ Kennedy wrote. “Interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence.’’
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
In a parallel challenge to a California referendum banning same-sex marriage, the court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in that state, but dashed the hopes of gay marriage supporters that it would establish the constitutional right for gays to marry in all states.
The 5-to-4 decision left in place a lower-court decision ending the California gay marriage ban, saying that those defending the ban did not have the right to step into the state’s role in appealing the trial court’s decision after the state chose not to do so.
‘‘We have no authority to decide this case on the merits,’’ Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. He was joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Scalia.
The justices in March heard two days of historic deliberations on gay marriage – weighing the constitutionality of a federal law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman as well as a state referendum banning gay marriage in California.
The Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, denies married gay couples the right to more than 1,100 federal benefits available to married heterosexual couples, including family medical leave, spousal Social Security benefits and spousal disability, and the ability to file joint federal tax returns and receive a marital deduction.
The ruling impacts married gay couples in Massachusetts, which became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2003, as well as couples in nearly a dozen other states that have legalized same-sex marriage.
The US appeals court in Boston had granted equal federal benefits to gay couples in much of New England last May, on the grounds that the Defense of Marriage Act violated the federal equal protection clause.
President Obama, who was aboard Air Force One on a trip to Africa when the decision was released, issued his first reaction on Twitter. “Today’s DOMA ruling is a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality. #LoveIsLove,’’ he wrote.
The case that went before the Supreme Court involved an 83-year-old New York widow, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes after the death of her female spouse because their marriage is not recognized under federal law. If Windsor had been married to a man, she would not have had to pay the estate tax.
The federal law was signed by President Clinton 17 years ago, when gay marriage was purely hypothetical. Since then, public and political opinion has shifted, with President Obama becoming the first president to announce his support for gay marriage rights last May.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement, “DOMA is the last federal law on the books that mandates discrimination against gay people by the federal government simply because they are gay, and today’s decision takes down its core. It’s a great day for equality and the beginning of the end of official discrimination against lesbians and gay men.’’
In the California case, voters there banned gay marriage six months after the state Supreme Court endorsed such unions. The state’s constitution was amended to recognized marriages only between a man and a woman.
The plaintiffs in the California case rejoiced outside the courthouse after the rulings.
“Today we can go back to California and say to our own children, all four of our boys, that your family is just as good as anybody else’s family,’’ said Kristin Perry, standing next to her partner, Sandra Stier, in a press conference in front of the courthouse steps. “Now we will be married, and we will be equal.’’
Jeffrey Zarrillo, who along with his partner Paul Katami were also plaintiffs in the case, said, “We look forward to using the words ‘marry’ and ‘husband’ because those words do matter. They are important.’’
After their short speeches, Katami asked Zarrillo to marry him, and the couple kissed in front of the crowd of cameras and onlookers.