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AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

John Lewis, left, and his partner Stuart Gaffney embrace as they react next to Andrea Shorter after the Supreme Court decision at the office of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at City Hall in San Francisco, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a provision of a U.S. law denying federal benefits to married gay couples and cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in the state of California. The justices issued two 5-4 rulings in their final session of the term. One decision wiped away part of a federal anti-gay marriage law that has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits. The other was a technical legal ruling that said nothing at all about same-sex marriage, but left in place a trial court's declaration that California's Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

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Michael Knaapen, left, and his husband John Becker, right, embrace outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013, after the court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by holding that defenders of California's gay marriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban.

SAN FRANCISCO -- A crowd gathered at San Francisco City Hall applauded the news that the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Wednesday for same-sex marriages to resume in California, but the reaction was shaded by the knowledge that the high court had sidestepped the larger question of whether banning gay marriages is unconstitutional.

The justices voted 5-4 to let stand a trial court's August 2010 ruling that overturned the state's voter-approved gay marriage ban, holding that the coalition of religious conservative groups that qualified Proposition 8 for the ballot did not have authority to defend it after state officials refused to do so.

The practical effect of that outcome, however, is likely to be more legal wrangling before the state will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time since Proposition 8 passed in November 2008.

Lawyers for the ban's sponsors have said that if that was the outcome, they would fight to keep the lower court decision from applying to more than the two couples who were the original plaintiffs in the long-running case.

"While it is unfortunate that the court's ruling does not directly resolve questions about the scope of the trial court's order against Prop 8, we will continue to defend Prop 8 and seek its enforcement until such time as there is a binding statewide order that renders Prop 8. unenforceable," Andy Pugno, a lawyer for the ban's supporters said.

The uncertainty has made it impossible for anyone to say when gay marriage might resume in California, where such unions were legal for 4 1/2 months and an estimated 18,000 couples tied the knot before Proposition 8's passage.

Under one scenario outlined by gay marriage advocates, it could happen as soon as Thursday, once the midlevel appeals court that also invalidated Proposition 8 lifts a hold it put on the lower court order while the litigation made its way to the Supreme Court. But city and state officials said they think the earliest marriage licenses could be extended to same-sex couples would be the end of July, to give Proposition 8's sponsors time to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider.

Many activists had hoped the court would strike down bans on gay marriage across the nation as unconstitutional.

The battle over same-sex marriage in California started at City Hall in 2004, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city clerks to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. On Wednesday, he brought the biggest cheers from the City Hall gathering when he said that San Francisco is a city of "doers" that not only tolerates diversity, but celebrates it every day.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera called the ruling a great victory. He said people criticized the city in 2004, saying it was moving too fast in granting marriage licenses. But Herrera said he believes the only way to get things done is to "kick down the door."

The measured enthusiasm contrasted with the exuberant cheers that greeted word minutes earlier that the Supreme Court had struck down a federal law that prevents the U.S. government from granting marriage benefits to gay couples.