Overturning California ban on gay marriages, the apex court has stricken down law denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples

By a 5-4 majority, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a much-anticipated ruling that determined as unconstitutional the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal government benefits to legally married same-sex couples, on the grounds that it violates the Fifth Amendment, which protects against abuse of government authority.

Linked to the framework of the DOMA decision, the court also declined to issue a ruling on Proposition 8, the State of California ban on same-sex marriages, and this is likely to open up channel for such unions there going forward.

However, the court has held back from any sweeping decision on gay marriage per se and thus this week’s ruling will not affect state laws governing whether same-sex couples can marry.

Instead it will ensure that same-sex couples who are legally married under state law receive federal benefits, delivered by more than 1,000 programmes, on par with heterosexual married couples.

In striking down DOMA, which was signed into law by the former President, Bill Clinton, at a time when gay marriage was widely opposed by the American public, the Supreme Court said in its majority opinion, “The federal statute is invalid for, no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”

President Barack Obama welcomed the decision saying in a statement that DOMA was “discrimination enshrined in law,” and that the Supreme Court “has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”

While he conceded that same-sex marriage was still a “sensitive” issue and “How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions,” Mr. Obama said his administration would seek to “review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for Federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.

The ruling will also matter to the ongoing visceral debate on immigration reform, particularly to the approximately 24,700 bi-national LGBT couples in the U.S., from among whom U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents may now be able to sponsor their foreign-born spouses for green cards.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who wrote the opinion along with the four “liberal-leaning justices,” Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, added, “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

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