WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by holding that defenders of California's gay marriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban.
The court's 5-4 vote Wednesday leaves in place the initial trial court declaration that the ban is unconstitutional. California officials probably will rely on that ruling to allow the resumption of same-sex unions in about a month's time.
The high court itself said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states.
The outcome was not along ideological lines.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia.
"We have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the 9th Circuit," Roberts said, referring to the federal appeals court that also struck down Proposition 8.
Four justices, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, said the court should have decided the constitutional question that was before it.
Chanting "DOMA is Dead," supporters of same-sex marriage burst into cheers Wednesday at news of another Supreme Court decision invalidating part of a law denying gay marriage partners the same federal benefits heterosexual couples enjoy.
Sarah Prager, 26, cried when she heard the news standing outside the court. Prager married her wife in Massachusetts in 2011 and now lives in Maryland.
"I'm in shock. I didn't expect DOMA to be struck down," she said through tears and shaking. Prager was referring to the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which was aimed at preserving the legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
A large crowd had thronged to the high court's plaza earlier to await not only the decision on DOMA, but also a ruling on whether a constitutional amendment in California prohibiting gay marriage could stand the test of challenge.
Most of the crowd that spilled across the sidewalk in front of the court were gay marriage supporters. One person held a rainbow flag and another wore a rainbow shawl, and a number of people carried signs with messages including "2 moms make a right" and "`I Do' Support Marriage Equality." Others wore T-shirts including "Legalize gay" and "It's time for marriage equality." At several points the crowd began a call and response: "What do we want? Equality. When do we want it? Now."
Larry Cirignano, 57, was in the minority with a sign supporting marriage only between a man and a woman. He said he drove four hours from Far Hills, N.J., because he believed all views should be represented. He said he hopes the court follows the lead of 38 states that have defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
George Washington University student Philip Anderson, 20, came to the court with a closet door that towered above his head. He had painted it with a message opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman and which the court is considering. His door read: "This used to oppress me. Repeal DOMA; Now. No more shut doors."
Thirty-four-year-old Ian Holloway of Los Angeles got to the court around 7 a.m. to try to get a seat inside the courtroom. Holloway said he and his partner had planned to get married in March but when the justices decided to hear the case involving California's ban on gay marriage they pushed back their date.
He said, "We have rings ready. We're ready to go as soon as the decision comes down." Holloway said he was optimistic the justices would strike down Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.
The Supreme Court is meeting to deliver opinions in two cases that could dramatically alter the rights of gay people across the United States.
The justices are expected to decide their first-ever cases about gay marriage Wednesday in their last session before the court's summer break.
The issues before the court are California's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies legally married gay Americans a range of tax, health and pension benefits otherwise available to married couples.
The broadest possible ruling would give gay Americans the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. But several narrower paths also are available, including technical legal outcomes in which the court could end up saying very little about same-sex marriage.
If the court overturns California's Proposition 8 or allows lower court rulings that struck down the ban to stand, it will take about a month for same-sex weddings to resume for the first time since 2008, San Francisco officials have said.
The high court rulings are arriving amid rapid change regarding gay marriage. The number of states permitting same-sex partners to wed has doubled from six to 12 in less than a year, with
voter approval in three states in November, followed by legislative endorsement in three others in the spring.
At the same time, an effort to legalize gay marriage in Illinois stalled before the state's legislative session ended last month. And 30 states have same-sex marriage bans enshrined in their constitutions.
Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, in 2004. Same-sex marriage also is legal, or soon will be, in Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Roughly 18,000 same-sex couples got married in California in less than five months in 2008, after the California Supreme Court struck down a state code provision prohibiting gay unions.
California voters approved Proposition 8 in November of that year, writing the ban into the state constitution.
Two same-sex couples challenged the provision as unconstitutional and federal courts in California agreed.
The federal marriage law, known by its acronym DOMA, defines marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of deciding who can receive a range of federal benefits. Another provision not being challenged for the time being allows states to withhold recognition of same-sex marriages from other states.
DOMA easily passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the year of his re-election.
Several federal district and appeals courts struck down the provision. In 2011, the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law but continued to enforce it. House Republicans are now defending DOMA in the courts. President Barack Obama subsequently endorsed gay marriage in 2012
The justices chose for their review the case of 83-year-old Edith Windsor of New York, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.
Windsor, who goes by Edie, married Thea Spyer in 2007 after doctors told them Spyer would not live much longer. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. Spyer left everything she had to Windsor.
Windsor would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man.