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Same-sex marriage supporters cheer 'Cinderella moment'; opponents vow to fight on

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Celebrations around the nation as the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and declined to rule on California's Prop 8, legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

While same-sex marriage supporters hailed on Wednesday historic Supreme Court decisions that struck down a federal law denying recognition of such unions and left the door open for gays and lesbians to wed once again in California, opponents vowed to keep up their campaign in a pitched state-by-state battle.

The justices struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law passed by Congress that barred recognition of same-sex marriages and thereby denied more than 1,100 benefits to married gay and lesbian couples. They also declined to rule in the case of Proposition 8, which barred same-sex marriage in California, saying supporters of the ban didn't have the legal standing to lodge an appeal of a lower court’s decision against the measure. That should allow weddings in the Golden State to resume in July.

A group of people supporting same-sex marriage celebrate the Supreme Court's ruling to strike down DOMA Wednesday.

"This is the gay marriage movement's Cinderella moment … this is the big legal turning point," said Bill Eskridge, a professor at Yale Law School and a constitutional law expert who has authored many works on legal issues facing same-sex couples.

"At long last, the legal marriages of countless gay and lesbian couples will be afforded the same federal recognition and protections as any other," Wilson Cruz, of gay rights advocacy group, GLAAD, said in a statement. "Today is a cornerstone for justice and equality -- when our nation once again moved closer to recognizing and celebrating all LGBT Americans for their contributions to our great country."

But opponents said the decision in DOMA upheld another key part of that federal law known as Section 2.

“Which means that the states still get to define marriage for themselves and don't have to recognize marriages performed in other states and I think that part of the holding -- the deference to the states definition of marriage – actually calls into question the Proposition 8 ruling” at the district court level in which it was struck down, said John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, which has spent tens of millions of dollars to bring votes in dozens of states blocking same-sex marriage.

“We clearly have a mixed ruling here. Justice Kennedy did not say that all states must recognize same-sex marriage. In fact, his opinion is full of deference to the states determination of marriage policy."

Both sides could “draw sustenance” from the DOMA ruling, but it wasn't clear whether striking down the federal law necessarily meant that the justices would also end state same-sex marriage bans, said Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor and author of “From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage.”

“There's just no way to tell and they very consciously wrote the opinion in such a way that it applies to DOMA but it doesn't necessarily say that any other state has to go and marry same sex couples,” he said. “All the court is saying is that Congress can't any longer have its own definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples … Congress has to treat them (those in states where same-sex marriage is legal) as if they are any other married couple.” 

“There is just no way that one can definitively say whether this opinion would lead to same sex marriage in the states or wouldn't,” he added. “But one can find a lot of ammunition within it that one could make the challenge at the state level as well.”

Same-sex marriage has been fought over at the ballot box in almost every state, debated in many state legislatures, and become the subject of several court battles for nearly 20 years. Though the decisions were disappointing for anti-gay marriage activists, they did leave the state battleground open, where opponents have shuttled through 36 separate bans on same-sex marriage (35, excluding California). A dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, allow gays and lesbians to tie the knot.

“The battle is going to continue to be fought out in the states as we fully expected," Eastman said, adding that he thought there could also be a new challenge around Proposition 8.

The Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage, said it was disappointed, too, but was pleased that the court didn't impose the sweeping nationwide redefinition of natural marriage that was sought. 

“Time is not on the side of those seeking to create same-sex 'marriage.' As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify,” President Tony Perkins said in a statement.

"We are encouraged that the court learned from the disaster of Roe v. Wade and refrained from redefining marriage for the entire country.”

But supporters of same-sex marriage – and the plaintiff in the DOMA case, Edie Windsor – said they believe their time has come.

“Children born today will grow up in a world without DOMA. And those same children who happen to be gay will be free to love and get married – as Thea and I did – but with the same federal benefits, protections and dignity as everyone else,” Windsor said in New York City. “If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it and she would be so pleased."

“I think they're enormous victories for our community," said Chris Clark, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal. "This means very real things for people and their families," he said, citing the benefits denied to them under DOMA. 

Other couples who live in states where same-sex marriage isn’t legal took hope from the ruling that one day they too could tie the knot and then receive federal benefits.

One of those couples is Patrick Bova, 75, and Jim Darby, 81, who in two weeks will celebrate 50 years together — but their state, Illinois, recently failed to pass same-sex marriage.

“We practically said ‘hurrah’ at the television set,” Bova said of watching the announcement of the court’s decision. “But we then we realize … that it’s not equal across the country because of these varying state laws.”

The idea for the couple is to get “married and buried” together, said Darby, a Korean War veteran, who would like that they get buried in a military cemetery.

“He can’t be buried with me because he’s not really my spouse. But if we could get married in Illinois, he could be buried with me, just like my brother and his wife,” Darby said. “I want it to happen soon because I’m no spring chicken. It’s gotta happen soon.”

Are you part of a same-sex couple hoping to get married but living in a state where you cannot do so? If so, please email reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com. Also note if your comments can be used and provide a telephone number.

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