WASHINGTON — — In a decision with both historic and practical significance for gay and lesbian couples, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages — an outcome advocates hope will aid in their state-by-state campaign to legalize such unions nationwide.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion found the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of determining eligibility for a host of federal benefits, violated equal-protection laws by relegating same-sex unions to a second-class status.
The court did not address whether the Constitution guarantees gay couples the right to marry — it left in place same-sex marriage bans in dozens of states — but the 5-4 decision for the first time granted gay couples wed in states such as Maryland federal rights equal to those enjoyed by straight spouses.
The federal law "places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage," Kennedy wrote in one of the more expressive sections of his opinion. "It humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples."
The decision will change the lives of married gay spouses in Maryland and elsewhere in tangible ways.
They will now be able to file joint federal tax returns and receive Social Security survivor benefits. Federal employees will be able to enroll partners in health care plans offered by the government and take unpaid leave to care for a sick spouse.
Maryland is home to more than 300,000 federal workers and service members, according to the census. Nationwide, an estimated 34,000 federal employees are in same-sex relationships, including state-recognized marriages.
The landmark decision came at a turning point in societal and political attitudes toward gay marriage. Opinion polls have found the public is far more open to same-sex marriage than it was 17 years ago, when majorities of Republicans and Democrats in Congress voted to pass the act.
"The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
In a second case, the high court declined to rule on California's 5-year-old ban on same-sex marriages. Because a lower court had struck down Proposition 8, the court decision Wednesday had the practical effect of making the nation's most populous state the 13th to recognize same-sex marriages.
Though the court decision had no direct impact on state laws beyond California, advocates said they hope to use the political momentum they gained Wednesday to overturn bans or limitations on same-sex marriage in the more than 30 states that have them.
The next targets for gay-rights groups will be Illinois, where the legislature came close to legalizing same-sex marriage earlier this spring and might consider the issue again later this year, and New Jersey, where a same-sex marriage bill passed the legislature but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Maryland, led by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, legalized same-sex marriage last year. State residents endorsed the decision in a November referendum, with 52 percent voting to keep the law on the books.
Gay Marylanders began marrying in January.
"To have the Supreme Court affirm our relationships and our marriages and our children is incredibly profound," said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland. "For the [gay] teen who's living in Cumberland right now, I think having this message from the court that the Constitution is going to protect our marriages and our kids is incredibly significant."
Critics of same-sex marriage, including some religious leaders, condemned the rulings.
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori described them as "the latest in a troubling trend of decisions by lawmakers, judges, and some voters" to change the notion of marriage in the country.
The "decisions will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences, most especially for children, and are another serious blow to the institution of marriage," he said.
Hundreds of gay rights advocates and couples, including many from Maryland, gathered on the steps of the court Wednesday, holding signs and waving rainbow flags in the humidity as they waited for the decisions.
As news of the decisions spread, the crowd erupted in cheers and many embraced.
Mollie Wagoner, a 20-year-old college student from St. Mary's County, and her girlfriend, Sharon Burk, woke up early to wait outside the court. Wagoner described the anticipation and excitement in the crowd as "infectious."
"This is by no means the end," said Wagoner, who attends American University in Washington. "It's great to celebrate today, and tomorrow we still have work to do."
Bea Blacklow of Silver Spring joined her gay son, Mark, outside the court.
"It's going to mean a lot for a lot of people," said Blacklow, 64. "More, maybe, than anyone knows."
But significant practical questions remain about how benefits will begin — and how soon.
The Obama administration must review statutes and regulations before opening benefits up to same-sex spouses. And it's not yet clear whether certain benefits would be revoked if a married gay couple moved to a state that did not recognize their marriage — say, from Maryland to Virginia.
The Social Security Administration and the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees benefits for federal employees, said Wednesday they would work to answer those questions quickly.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon "welcomes" the ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act and would work to make benefits available to same-sex spouses "as soon as possible."
University of Maryland law professor Martha Ertman said the decision will bring new responsibilities as well as new benefits. Some might pay more in federal taxes. Ethics laws requiring certain federal employees to disclose spousal income will now also apply to gay couples.
Reaction to the rulings on Capitol Hill was mixed, with most Democrats cheering the decisions and many Republicans saying they were disappointed but committed to fighting for the traditional definition of marriage in state capitals.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the decision "bent the arc of history once again toward justice." Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, vowed that a "robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square."
Maryland Democrats, including Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, issued statements applauding the decision. Cardin said the court "made whole" loving families across the nation. Mikulski said she was "proud to see the day that marriage equality becomes the law of the land."
Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings described the ruling as "a critical next step in ensuring that all Americans are treated equally under the law."
All three, as well as Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, had joined a majority of their party in supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
Rep. Andy Harris, the sole Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, said he is glad the Supreme Court upheld the rights of states to define marriage. But the Baltimore County lawmaker expressed disappointment that "the unelected Court overruled the will of the elected Congress on this issue."
Still, it's unlikely that today's Congress would have supported the Defense of Marriage Act — or even been willing to bring the issue to a floor vote — in part because public opinion on the issue has shifted so dramatically in the nearly two decades since President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law.
Fifty-three percent of Americans believe marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law, up from 48 percent in 2011 and 27 percent in 1996, according to a Gallup poll last month.
The justices joining Kennedy in the majority opinion were Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Three justices wrote dissenting opinions: Chief Justice John Roberts; Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
Roberts wrote that Congress acted constitutionally when it passed DOMA.
"Interests in uniformity and stability amply justified Congress's decision to retain the definition of marriage that, at that point, had been adopted by every state in our nation, and every nation in the world," he wrote.
Hours after the decision was announced, Sotomayor was seen strolling down Main Street in Annapolis.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., the only openly gay member of his chamber and a Montgomery County Democrat instrumental in passing Maryland's same-sex marriage law, said he stopped Sotomayor, hugged her, and introduced her to his 6-year-old son.
"When do you ever get a chance to run into a Supreme Court justice and say thank you for what you've done?" he said later.
Sun reporters Kevin Rector, Erin Cox, Carrie Wells and the Tribune Washington bureau contributed to this article.