In a landmark ruling the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 on Wednesday to overturn a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, four years after New Yorker Edith Windsor challenged the law as unconstitutional.
The 1996 measure, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriage, kept gay and lesbian married couples from getting the same benefits as straight married couples.
Writing in the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment."
He added, "Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways."
Kennedy was joined by the court's four liberal justices.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissenting opinion, claimed the court overstepped its power by deciding the case and argued that opponents of same-sex marriage are being vilified.
He wrote, "In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated."
The ruling is a victory for Windsor, who challenged the 1996 law after her wife died and she was forced to pay $360,000 in taxes.
A straight couple would not have had to pay those taxes.
Speaking to reporters in the West Village Wednesday, Windsor thanked her legal team and supporters who believed in the fight.
"Not only does a large portion of our country - and the straight members of the country - see us differently, as just people who live and love and bring up kids who will play with their kids. But our own community has come out and seen each other and loved each other in a way that makes me proud and joyous every day," Windsor said.
"The events of today remind us why it is we have a constitution: To bind us together as citizens of one nation, each of whom is entitled to equal protection of the law. There is no person and no case that better demonstrates that core concept of equal protection than Edith Windsor v. the United States of America," said Windsor's attorney, Roberta Kaplan.
The ruling, however, does not touch any same-sex marriage bans, and gay rights advocates said they're still sorting out how some federal benefits will extend to legally married gay couples living in states where same-sex marriage is illegal.
The court on Wednesday also cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California, saying defenders of the controversial Proposition 8 measure did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban.
The 5-4 ruling restores the initial trial court decision that the ban is unconstitutional.
"This is a wonderful day for our plaintiffs, it's a wonderful day for everyone around this country and in California in particular that wants to be able to marry the person that they love, but it's a wonderful day for America because we have now taken this country another important step toward guaranteeing the promise that is in our Constitution, and in our Declaration of Independence," said Prop 8 Plaintiff Attorney David Boies.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, but did not comment on the validity of same-sex marriages.
He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Scalia.
The votes were not split along ideological lines.
In all, 12 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriages.
In a statement, Governor Andrew Cuomo called the Court's rulings a "major step forward" in the fight for marriage equality.
He said New York State has been at the forefront of the equality movement since the legalization of gay marriage here two years ago.
"After New York passed marriage equality, about another five states passed it, and New York gave credibility in some ways to the entire movement," Cuomo said. "And I'm proud of that."
Cuomo said he hopes every state will adopt similar legislation.
The New York Archdiocese issued a statement calling the Supreme Court rulings a "tragic day for marriage and our nation."
Cardinal Timothy Dolan went on to say, "The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people...The court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so."
With LGBT supporters and advocates at her sides, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a candidate for mayor, and her colleagues celebrated Windsor Wednesday.
"She has changed the world and put us in a situation where we now have the march for marriage equality in every state in the union," Quinn said. "We will move forward in that march with the wind at our backs, with an affirmation from the Supreme Court."
"Everyday people who live their lives out, it is the most powerful weapon that we have," said former state Senator Tom Duane of Manhattan.
Speaking personally, Quinn was in tears as she described the feeling of triumph at the supreme court's decision.
If elected, the speaker would be the first openly LGBT mayor of New York City.