The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that legally married same-sex couples should get the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.
The court invalidated a provision of the federal 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. The vote was 5-4.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion.
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.
The court has yet to release its decision on California's ban on same-sex marriage.
"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 said.
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. Scalia 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."
The law was passed in 1996 by broad majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Since then, many lawmakers who voted for the law and Clinton have renounced their support.
Earlier version of story ...
WASHINGTON (AP) - A crowd thronged to the plaza of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday to await two major gay marriage decisions.
Most of the crowd that spilled across the sidewalk in front of the court were gay marriage supporters. One person held a rainbow flag and another wore a rainbow shawl, and a number of people carried signs with messages including "2 moms make a right" and ""I Do' Support Marriage Equality." Others wore T-shirts including "Legalize gay" and "It's time for marriage equality." At several points the crowd began a call and response: "What do we want? Equality. When do we want it? Now."
Larry Cirignano, 57, was in the minority with a sign supporting marriage only between a man and a woman. He said he drove four hours from Far Hills, N.J., because he believed all views should be represented. He said he hopes the court follows the lead of 38 states that have defined marriage as between one man and one woman
George Washington University student Philip Anderson, 20, came to the court with a closet door that towered above his head. He had painted it with a message opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman and which the court is considering. His door read: "This used to oppress me. Repeal DOMA; Now. No more shut doors."
Thirty-four-year-old Ian Holloway of Los Angeles got to the court around 7 a.m. to try to get a seat inside the courtroom. Holloway said he and his partner had planned to get married in March but when the justices decided to hear the case involving California's ban on gay marriage they pushed back their date.
He said, "We have rings ready. We're ready to go as soon as the decision comes down." Holloway said he was optimistic the justices would strike down Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.