Edith Windsor at Johns Hopkins University

Edith Windsor, pictured on a screen at the Johns Hopkins University commencement service in Baltimore on Thursday, was granted an honorary degree from the university for her courage in challenging the federal ban on same-sex marriages in the U.S. Supreme Court. Her attorney, Roberta Kaplan, was also honored. (Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University / May 22, 2014)

The two women who successfully challenged the constitutionality of the federal law banning same-sex marriage received honorary degrees during Johns Hopkins University's commencement ceremonies in Baltimore on Thursday.

Many in the audience of students, families and alumni cheered loudly for Edith Windsor and her attorney Roberta Kaplan as they accepted the honors in person.

Windsor's case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and resulted in a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act being declared unconstitutional. That, in turn, has played a key role in same-sex marriage bans falling across the country in recent months.

Presenting Windsor with her honorary degree, Dr. Michael Klag, dean of the School of Public Health, said the following:  

"You have been called an unlikely activist, but you had the courage to fight against injustice and in support of the many loving gay and lesbian couples who had been excluded from the federal protections and provisions extended to other married people. Because of your courage, the Defense of Marriage Act has been declared unconstitutional, and legally married, same-sex couples are now recognized and protected by the federal government. Edith Windsor, for your strength and determination in your fight for marriage equality and for human rights, the Johns Hopkins University is proud to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa."

Presenting Kaplan with her honorary degree, Patricia Davidson, dean of the School of Nursing, said the following:

"You showed courage and conviction when you agreed to take on the Defense of Marriage Act. When arguing before the Supreme Court, you said that no one has identified any legitimate difference between gay couples and straight married couples that can possibly explain the sweeping, undifferentiated and categorical discrimination of DOMA. At that time only nine states permitted gay marriage, gay couples to marry. A year later, 17 states do. Roberta Kaplan, for being a bold champion of the right of people who love each other to marry and to enjoy the full legal benefit of that union, for standing strongly in the face of monumental challenges and for continuing to fight for human rights for all, the Johns Hopkins University is proud to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa."

Windsor and Kaplan did not provide their own remarks.

Windsor, who is in her mid-80s, married her partner of more than 40 years, Thea Spyer, in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009, the federal government refused to recognize Windsor as her surviving spouse because of the Defense of Marriage Act, and charged her $363,053 in estate taxes.

Windsor sued with the pro bono help of Kaplan, and the rest became gay rights history.