06/26/13 4:00pm
06/26/2013 4:00 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm officiated at the first gay marriage on the North Fork outside Riverhead Town Hall on July 28, 2011. There, Theresa Claudio (left) and Nancy Zaharick of Mastic were wed.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to extend federal benefits to married gay couples Wednesday in what same-sex marriage supporters have called a ”historic victory” for gay rights.

The 5-4 decision invalidated a section of the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex couples from getting numerous health, retirement and tax benefits that were available to heterosexual couples.

The court also dismissed a case involving California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state. That decision leaves in place a lower court’s ruling that will invalidate that voter-approved mandate, making same-sex unions legal in California again.

The court’s rulings were hailed by elected leaders as an important step toward equal rights for citizens of all sexual orientations.

“The Supreme Court has confirmed that equal protection under the law for all Americans means having the ability to marry the person you love,” said Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). “This decision is also a victory for the families who will now be able to access the benefits and rights accorded to married partners by the federal government if they are legally married in a state.”

Mr. Bishop, whose daughter is in a same-sex marriage, has long been an opponent of the legislation and is a member of the House LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community) Caucus.

New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also praised the decision as a “victory for the quintessentially American principle of equal justice under the law.”

For Cutchogue residents Alan Santos and Michael Buckley, who became the first legally married gay couple in Southold Town in 2011, the decision was an “encouraging” step.

Mr. Buckley said news of the decision cut into the television show he was watching Wednesday morning.

“It felt different to be married [in 2011],” he said in an interview. “Now that we have federal recognition, it feels even more different … I think it’s a great day.”

Mr. Buckley said he and Mr. Santos, who are considering retiring and moving to the South, will feel more comfortable knowing that they have federal benefits as they get older.

Mr. Buckley said there is still a long way to go; the couple said some of the states to which they would considering moving still won’t recognize their marriage as legitimate.

But the Supreme Court’s decision will open up the path for more discussion and more cases on this issue, he said.

“I’m shocked and proud that this happened during my lifetime,” he said.

psquire@timesreview.com