By Amy Norton
WEDNESDAY, June 26 (HealthDay News) -- In a landmark decision regarding gay rights, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled Wednesday that California's ban on same-sex marriages can't remain in place.
The high court's 5-4 decision was limited to the California ban, which became law in November 2008 after a five-month period when gay marriages were legal in the state. The justices ruled that the ban's architects didn't have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the prohibition of same-sex unions.
In a related decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that partners in gay marriages have the same right to federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive.
California officials will likely use the Supreme Court ruling to allow the resumption of same-sex marriages in about a month's time, according to published reports.
Wednesday's decision has no impact on laws in other states banning same-sex marriages.
Right now, gay marriage is legal in the District of Columbia and a dozen states, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Washington. A few other states legally recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, but the majority of states -- three dozen in all -- have bans on same-sex marriage.
Whatever happens going forward, a growing body of research suggests that state laws on gay marriage have implications for people's mental and physical health.
When people think of the health aspect of the gay marriage debate, they think of concerns like access to health insurance, said Brian Mustanski, associate professor of medical social science at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
"People usually get the health insurance issue, but the idea that stigma [related to bans on gay marriage] has direct health effects is something that people may never have considered," Mustanski said.
Richard Wight, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health, said his research has suggested that legal unions, particularly marriage, could be a boon to gay and bisexual people's mental health. In a study published in December, Wight's team found less "psychological distress" among same-sex couples in California who got married in the short time window in 2008 when gay marriage was legal in the state.
That was in comparison to gay, lesbian and bisexual Californians who were not in legalized unions. There were no major mental health differences between same-sex couples in legal unions and their married heterosexual counterparts, Wight said.
That was also true of gay people in domestic partnerships, which have been an option for same-sex couples in California since 2000. But marriage, in particular, showed a stronger statistical link to better mental health, he said.
"This shows us there is something going on there," Wight said. You can't conclude, from those findings alone, that the right to marry boosts gay people's mental health, he noted. But his team did try to factor in some of the "usual suspects" in mental health -- such as age, income and education -- and the link between legal unions and less distress remained.
The findings, which appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, were based on a statewide survey of more than 47,000 Californians. It gauged people's psychological distress by asking them how often they'd felt nervous, hopeless, restless or depressed in the past month.
In general, people in legal unions -- whether same-sex or heterosexual marriage, or domestic partnerships -- fared better than single people, regardless of sexual orientation. But the highest distress levels were seen among gay, lesbian and bisexual Californians not in legal unions.
A limit of the study, Wight acknowledged, was that it was conducted at one point in time. So it's not clear what the survey respondents' mental health was like before they got married or entered a domestic partnership. Maybe happier people -- straight or gay -- are more likely to settle down.
But Mustanski said there's also evidence from long-term research that the option to marry affects gay Americans' health.