WASHINGTON — Married gay and lesbian couples are entitled to federal benefits, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a major victory for the gay rights movement.
In a second decision, the court declined to say whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Instead, the justices said that a case concerning California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, was not properly before them. Because officials in California had declined to appeal a trial court’s decision against them and because the proponents of Proposition 8 were not entitled to step into the state’s shoes to appeal from the decision, the court said, it was powerless to issue a decision.
The ruling leaves in place laws banning same-sex marriage around the nation. Its consequences for California were not immediately clear, but many legal analysts say that same-sex marriages there are likely to resume in a matter of weeks.
The decision on the federal law was 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, which the four liberal-leaning justices joined.
“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,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “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.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts was in the minority, as were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The ruling overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which passed with bipartisan support and President Bill Clinton signed.
The decision will immediately extend some federal benefits to same-sex couples, but it will also raise a series of major decisions for the Obama administration about how aggressively to overhaul references to marriage throughout the many volumes that lay out the laws of the United States.
“In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent. “The truth is more complicated.”
Justice Scalia read from his dissent on the bench, a step justices take in a small share of cases, typically to show that they have especially strong views.
Justice Kennedy, in his opinion, wrote that the law was “unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”
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