Obama: Gay couples no longer treated as 'lesser class of people'

President Obama placed congratulatory phone calls to the gay rights activists who prevailed in a pair of Supreme Court cases Wednesday, telling them he was proud of their efforts and pleased that the Defense of Marriage Act and a ruling restricting gay marriage in California had been overturned.

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"We're proud of you guys, and we're proud to have this in California," Obama told Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, the plaintiffs who challenged California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. The call, placed from Air Force One as the president and the first family traveled to Senegal, was broadcast live on MSNBC while the couple was being interviewed.

"And it's because of your leadership things are headed the right way. So you should be very proud today."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier Wednesday Obama called Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the challenge of the Defense of Marriage Act.

"The President congratulated her on this victory, which was a long time in the making, said he was heartened by the court's decision to strike down Section 3 of DOMA so that loving, committed couples could enjoy full equality under the law," Carney said. "And, he said, that it is fitting that this historic ruling should come today, just 10 years after the court struck down laws making same-sex relationships illegal in Lawrence v. Texas."

In addition to the phone calls, the president released a statement applauding the high court for striking down DOMA, which he said enshrined discrimination in the law. Obama said he has directed Attorney General Eric Holder to work with other members of the Cabinet to review federal statutes to “ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly."

The Supreme Court said procedural issues prevented it from reaching a ruling on the merits of California’s Proposition 8, appearing to clear the way for same-sex marriage to resume in the state. 

In the DOMA ruling, the court overturned a section of the law that bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits, even if they live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages.

“This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people,” Obama said in reaction to the decision. 

“The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.  We are a people who declared that we are all created equal — and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Obama called the ruling a victory for couples who have “long fought for equal treatment under the law; for children whose parents’ marriages will now be recognized, rightly, as legitimate; for families that, at long last, will get the respect and protection they deserve; and for friends and supporters who have wanted nothing more than to see their loved ones treated fairly and have worked hard to persuade their nation to change for the better.”

“On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital,” Obama said. “How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions. Nothing about this decision — which applies only to civil marriages — changes that."

Carney said that the president first learned of the ruling in a pair of phone conversations with White House staff, after the Internet connection aboard Air Force One was temporarily knocked out. The president was briefed on the decisions by White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler.

"We lost connectivity right at the critical moment … but we were able to learn via telephone," Carney said.

This story was originally posted at 11:47 a.m. and has been updated.