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WASHINGTON – Gay married couples in New York and other states today won access to more than 1,100 federal rights that had been denied to them, as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law that has long barred the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex unions.

At the same time, though, the justices stopped far short of finding a constitutional right to gay marriage, saying they lacked jurisdiction to rule in a case involving California’s referendum banning gay marriage. Doing so, though, reaffirms a lower-court ruling upending that marriage ban and reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Moreover, the court’s 5-4 ruling invalidating a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act will stand as a landmark. It is the high court’s first-ever ruling on gay marriage, and one of profound importance to gay married couples in the 12 states, along with the District of Columbia, that sanction such unions.

As a result of today’s ruling, those couples will eventually be able to file joint U.S. tax returns. Gay widows and widowers will be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. And citizens of other countries who wed a same-sex partner who is an American citizen will encounter a much easier path to citizenship.

Gay married couples won those new rights and countless others because a majority of the justices ruled that DOMA’s ban on federal benefits was a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process under the law.

“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect” by passing a law legalizing gay marriage, said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority. “By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan joined Kennedy’s majority opinion.

The ruling in the DOMA case, U.S. v. Windsor, reflected the change in public opinion toward favoring gay marriage, but the dissenting justices illustrated how divisive the gay marriage issue remains.

“In my view a perfectly valid justification for this statute is contained in its title: the Defense of Marriage Act,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, reading part of his dissent from the bench. “Society has the right – it has always had the right – to define and defend that institution, and favoring man-woman marriage no more ‘demeans’ and ‘humiliates other sexual relationships than favoring our Constitution demeans and humiliates the governmental systems of other countries.”

While the opinion in the DOMA case will be of obvious benefit to same-sex couples living in places that allow gay marriage, its overall impact may be up to President Obama.

That is because different agencies have differing standards for what actually constitutes a marriage recognized under federal law.

Some agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, base that decision on the state where a couple lives. That means a gay couple married in New York but living in, say, Pennsylvania, would not automatically win access to federal benefits because of today’s ruling.

Other agencies, such as the Department of Defense, recognize marriages based on the state where they take place, not where the married couple resides.

In wake of today’s ruling, Obama will have to decide whether to extend gay marriage benefits more broadly by basing them uniformly on the state where a marriage is performed.

Doing so would expand the influence of today’s decision far past the states that now allow gay marriage.

Writing for the court majority, Kennedy stressed, though, that the DOMA ruling was a limited one.

“By seeking to displace this protection [of marriage] and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment,” Kennedy wrote. “This opinion and its holdings are confined to those lawful marriages.”

But Scalia, in his dissent, charged that the court was opening the door to eventually finding a constitutional right to gay marriage.

“By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition,” Scalia said.

Then again, the court did not go nearly so far as it could have.

The California case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, could have resulted in a sweeping finding that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law means that gay couples, just like straight couples, can get married in any state.

Instead, the justices punted.

In the case, proponents of a 2008 California referendum banning gay marriage there asked the justices to reverse lower-court rulings that said the referendum was unconstitutional.

However, in another 5-4 ruling, the justices decided that the referendum’s proponents did not have standing to bring the case to the high court.

“Because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on its merits, and neither did the Ninth Circuit,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority.

In an unusual alignment, Kennedy and Sotomayor dissented, as did Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

By refusing to rule in the California case, the justices in effect let stand a District Court ruling that gave the state’s gay couples the right to wed.

While the California ruling has no impact beyond that state, legal experts believe that it is just the first case the justices will deal with posing the question of whether gay marriage is a constitutional right.

Other cases could be filed out of other states and make their way through the federal court system, all the way to the high court.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com