In a huge victory for same-sex marriage supporters, the Supreme Court has voted to overturn one part of the Defense of Marriage Act and to let stand a lower court ruling overturning California's Prop 8.
The court overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, a section that defines a marriage for purposes of determining federal benefits as being between a man and a woman.
"The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a 5-4 decision on DOMA. "This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution."
DOMA defined marriage, for federal purposes, as a relationship between a man and a woman.
The court also voted 5-4 that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the Prop 8 case. That left in a place a San Francisco federal district court ruling that overturned the law, which had banned California from allowing same-sex marriages.
Opposition to both laws was powerful in Hollywood, where A-listers campaigned for same-sex couples to have the same right to marriage as heterosexuals.
"PROP 8 IS DEAD," tweeted Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, one of its most prominent opponents. "Marriages WILL begin again in CALIFORNIA!"
MSNBC was interviewing plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case when President Obama, on his way to Senegal, called to congratulate them. The network aired his call live.
"We're proud of you guys, and we're proud to have this in California," Obama said. "And it's because of your leadership things are heading the right way. So you should be very proud today."
In a formal statement, Obama applauded the DOMA ruling, saying the overturned statute "enshrined" discrimination into law and the court decision "is a victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law."
DOMA "treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it," said Obama.
In Sacramento, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. directed the California Department of Public Health to tell county clerks to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses as soon as courts confirm that a court stay on a ruling overturning Prop 8 has been lifted.
Though both Supreme Court decisions came by 5-4 decision, a different combination of judges was involved in each. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, joined Kennedy in the DOMA majority. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan formed the Prop 8 majority.
Roberts, delivering the Prop 8 decision, questioned the right of supporters of the proposition to appeal a decision the State of California chose not to appeal.
"We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here," he wrote.
Both cases drew several opinions from dissenting judges.
In the DOMA case, Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and in part by Roberts, questioned both the ruling and whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case.
"We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation," wrote Scalia.
In the Prop 8 case, Justice Kennedy, joined by Thomas, Sotomayor and Samuel Alito Jr., said California law gives legal standing to private parties who want to challenge or defend state laws.
Watch Obama's phone call: