Same-sex marriage advocates in New York City celebrated Wednesday after the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, and issued another ruling that will allow gay marriages to resume in California.
About a thousand people gathered Wednesday on the block where a 1969 riot sparked the gay rights movement to celebrate. Supporters of gay marriage greeted each other with hugs and salutations of "congratulations" as they amassed for a rally organized by GLAAD, one of the country's leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.
Before a host of speakers — including Edith Windsor, the plaintiff who challenged the federal law — took to the stage on Stonewall Place in Manhattan's Greenwich Village neighborhood, people danced as pop music blasted.
"This opens the door for the federal rights we were denied," said Stephen Williams, of Brooklyn, who was legally married to his husband just a week after New York legalized gay marriage in June 2011. "It's a huge step forward."
When Windsor walked onto the stage, she was greeted by cheers and thunderous applause.
"I am honored and humbled and overjoyed to be here," she said, "to represent not only the thousands of Americans whose lives have been adversely affected by the Defense of Marriage Act but the thousands whose hopes and dreams have been constricted by it."
The federal law, known as DOMA, has blocked the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in the 12 states where they are legal. The California ruling came in the form of the court holding that defenders of the state's gay marriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking it down, which leaves in place the initial trial court declaration that it is unconstitutional.
In the DOMA case, the justices chose to review the case of Windsor, a longtime New Yorker 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. When Spyer died, she left everything she had to Windsor, who then had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes on two properties the couple had shared for decades. She would have had to pay no inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man.
Windsor said the IRS did not recognize her marriage to Spyer as legal and essentially said she was "no one's widow" by forcing her to pay the large estate tax sum.
Immediately after the court issued its ruling Wednesday, Windsor said she was "joyous, just joyous!"
"If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it," she said.
At the Stonewall Inn celebration Wednesday night, Windsor was interrupted repeatedly by applause from the crowd and chants of "Edie, Edie, Edie!"
"Let me just say the federal government picked the wrong New Yorker to screw with when they sent Edie that tax bill," quipped City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is openly gay, when she took the stage.
Moments earlier, Windsor had made an impromptu trip to the microphone, holding the Democratic speaker's hand above her head as she endorsed her for mayor.
Quinn praised the court's decision, adding that she was gratified to see a law she described as "a cancer" be overturned.
"It's almost impossible to describe the feeling of your government striking a law from the books that was literally a cancer," she said, describing it as a law that said "I was the second-highest ranking official in this city but I was less than my next door neighbors. That's gone. That's gone."
Edward DeBonis, who attended the rally with his husband, Vincent Maniscalco, said the couple was ecstatic about the court's decision, praising Windsor for bringing the lawsuit and seeing it through.
"She's a rock star," he said.
Opponents to same-sex marriage were disappointed by the court's actions. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said it was a "tragic day for marriage and our nation."
"The court got it wrong," he said. "The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so."
The high court rulings come 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.
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.
DOMA easily passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the year of his re-election.