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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The two same-sex couples who challenged California's ban on gay marriage stood on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday morning, their hands raised in triumph.
Although the court stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage to be a national right, there was little question that the hundreds of supporters gathered in front of the white marble courthouse viewed the plaintiffs as victors.
"Thank you! Thank you!" chanted the crowd during a hot and muggy day in the U.S. capital.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, let stand a lower-court ruling striking down California's voter-approved ban on gay marriage. The court also threw out the core of a U.S. law giving federal benefits only to heterosexual married couples.
Outside the courthouse, the raucous crowd of gay marriage supporters brandished signs, sang songs and waved rainbow flags. They called the rulings historic, even as they acknowledged that their goal of legalizing gay marriage nationally had yet to be achieved.
"There may be potholes on the road to equality, but it's a one-way street," said John Becker, 28, who traveled to Canada in 2006 from his home in Wisconsin so he could marry his husband. "To go from having to leave the country to get married, in seven years, to the steps of the Supreme Court to have the court recognize what's in our hearts - it can't be overstated."
Former U.S. Representative Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, said he had been pessimistic for years about the prospects for same-sex marriage nationwide. But the rapid progress made by gay marriage supporters in recent years has left him far more hopeful.
"We're a big step closer to being a country that lives up to its founding ideals," Frank said, as people posed for pictures with him.
At a news conference, each of the four plaintiffs in the California case spoke about the court's decision.
At one point, his voice cracking slightly, Paul Katami turned to his partner, Jeff Zarrillo, touched his face and said, "Today I finally get to look at the man that I love and finally say, 'Will you please marry me?'" Zarrillo laughed and leaned in for a kiss as cameras clicked.
The other same-sex couple in the case, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, also spoke. Perry said the ruling sent a message to children across America. She told the crowd: "Today, we can go back to California and say to our own children, all four of our boys: 'Your family is just as good as anybody else's family.' Now we will be married, and we will be equal to every other family in California."
Before the ruling, 12 of the 50 U.S. states allowed gay marriage. California would be the 13th.
Edith Windsor, the 84-year-old lesbian who successfully challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the other case, appeared at a New York news conference where she said her late wife, Thea Speyer, would have been proud. A cramped crowd of people whooped with joy and chanted her name.
Windsor and the four plaintiffs in the other case received congratulatory phone calls from President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One, the White House said.
Opponents of gay marriage were scarce outside the courthouse, with no more than a few protesters carrying signs.
The National Organization for Marriage, which led a march past the courthouse during oral arguments in March, opted not to hold a rally but vowed to press Congress to protect states' rights to "protect true marriage" between a man and a woman.
Many of those gathered outside the columned courthouse said the decisions would one day be seen as signposts in a long struggle for civil rights.
Blair Dottin-Haley, 34, who arrived at the courthouse with his husband, Brandon, 26, said his grandparents were founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality, which played a crucial role in the 1960s civil rights movement.
"I've described it as this generation's Brown versus Board of Education," he said, referring to the 1954 Supreme Court case that outlawed school segregation.
Patricia Lambert, 59, a native of South Africa, married her wife, American Kathy Mulvey, 47, five years ago. She likened the fight for gay marriage to the struggle against apartheid in her country.
The court's decisions will have practical consequences as well. As a non-U.S. citizen with a work visa, Lambert said, she was worried that she could be forced to leave the country if she stopped working.
Now, with DOMA's central provision overturned and her marriage legitimate in the eyes of the federal government, she can apply for permanent U.S. residency.
Veteran civil liberties activists said they were moved by the moment. As the news broke that the court had struck down the key provision in DOMA, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, smiled and pointed to his arm. "I have goose bumps," he said.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham