WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act thanks to a challenge from an elderly woman who married her longtime love in Toronto six years ago.
The high court also cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by ruling that defenders of the state's ban didn't have the right to appeal a lower court ruling that upheld gay unions.
The DOMA ruling, meantime, gives spouses in same-sex unions a full array of federal tax, health and pension benefits.
The two rulings could transform the United States on same-sex marriage, an issue now widely considered a civil rights battle — and one that is dramatically winning the support of Americans.
As many legal experts predicted, it was Justice Anthony Kennedy, a libertarian conservative on the panel, who broke ranks and voted in favour of striking DOMA. Kennedy had already written two judgments for the court that upheld the rights of gays.
The Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, was signed into law by former president Bill Clinton, who has since said he regrets the decision.
The challenge to the legislation was spearheaded by a marriage made in Canada. Eighty-three-year-old Edith Windsor, a New Yorker, married her longtime partner six years ago in Canada, where same-sex marriage has been legal for almost a decade. The couple's marriage was recognized by New York's state government.
But when Spyer died in 2009, the federal government cited DOMA to force Windsor, who's now ailing, to pay $363,000 in taxes on her late wife's estate — taxes that wouldn't have been levied against her if she'd been married to a man.
"It's heartbreaking," Windsor said earlier this year. "It's just a terrible injustice, and I don't expect that from my country. I think it's a mistake that has to get corrected."
The latest polls suggest the majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, compared with just 13 per cent 25 years ago.
It's not just a generation gap that explains the profound shift, pollsters are discovering — even some older Americans are changing their minds about gay marriage, as are citizens in rural areas, from religious backgrounds and in traditionally conservative jurisdictions.
Amid that backdrop, the nine-member Supreme Court heard arguments in March in a challenge to California's Proposition 8, a 2008 state referendum that defined marriage as an institution between a man and woman. Prop 8 has served to outlaw same-sex unions in the otherwise liberal state.
The arguments, made before the Supreme Court panel of five Republican appointees and four Democrats, were heard even as some high-profile Republicans, long consumed with winning over the social conservatives of their base, expressed support for same-sex marriage.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman reversed his stance after his college-age son revealed he was gay. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon and a Republican presidential candidate in 2012, has also backed same-sex marriage and urged his fellow Republicans to do the same.
Even Karl Rove, the powerful Republican strategist who famously brought millions of Christian evangelicals into the party fold a decade ago, says he wouldn't be surprised if the 2016 Republican presidential candidate — whoever that may be — backs same-sex marriage.
U.S. President Barack Obama has helped embolden fellow politicians on same-sex matrimony after he reversed his own stance on the issue last year, becoming the first commander-in-chief in American history to back gay marriage. The White House had urged the high court to rule in favour of same-sex rights.
Hillary Clinton, eyeing a run for president in 2016, has also expressed her support.
A brief filed by Democratic lawmakers to the Supreme Court urging it to overturn the Defence of Marriage Act sounded an apologetic tone as it made note of society's rapidly changing attitudes about same-sex marriage. That's despite the fact that many of them voted in favour of the act in 1996.
"In short, it was a different world for gay men and lesbians, and many were understandably reluctant to speak openly about themselves or their families," said the brief, signed by more than 200 sitting congressional Democrats.
"A number of members, like the constituents we serve, did not personally know many (if any) people who were openly gay and majority attitudes toward that minority group were often viscerally fearful and negative."