The US Supreme Court has delivered a victory for gay rights with a landmark ruling to give same-sex married couples the same entitlements as heterosexual couples.
In one of the most significant civil rights decisions since the end of segregation, America's highest court ruled yesterday that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
The decision does not grant marriage rights across America, but gives gay couples in the 13 states that allow same-sex marriage equal standing to their heterosexual peers.
The court also dismissed a case on California's ban on gay marriage, effectively reinstating marriage rights for gays and lesbians in America's most populous state.
The two rulings were greeted by scenes of celebration on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington.
"Today means love and equality for everyone and we're just so glad to be here and be part of it all," said Ash Freeman, a 28-year-old who married her partner five days ago.
Barack Obama telephoned the lesbian couple involved in the California case as they appeared live on television.
"When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free," the president said in a statement.
By overturning the Defence of Marriage Act, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1996, the Supreme Court struck down more than 1,000 regulations preventing gay couples from receiving equal treatment on tax, property and immigration.
The biggest impact will be for couples in which one partner is foreign, allowing them to apply for permanent US residence.
The decision split the nine Supreme Court judges. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the centrist whose vote often decides rulings, sided with the liberals. In an unusually emotional 26-page legal opinion, Justice Kennedy said that the act treated same-sex unions as "second-class marriages". "It humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples," he wrote.
The ruling was opposed by the court's conservatives, with Justice Antonin Scalia accusing the liberals of treating gay marriage opponents like "a wild-eyed lynch mob" and "enemies of the human race".
"To defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements," he wrote.
The rulings were met with outrage from some social conservatives. Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, said: "The ruling has now made the normalisation of polygamy, paedophilia, incest and bestiality inevitable."
The court also declined to issue a ruling on Proposition 8, a 2008 California referendum decision, which banned gay marriage in the state.
By not giving a ruling, the high court deferred to the judgment of a lower court in San Francisco, which had already ruled the ban was unconstitutional. The decision means that gay couples can resume marrying in California for the first time in four years. (© Daily Telegraph, London)