SAN FRANCISCO -- Wearing wedding gowns and waving rainbow flags, they gathered by the hundreds early Wednesday morning at City Hall, where the corridors echoed with joy in 2004 as thousands of same-sex couples tied the knot -- only to see their vows squashed by the state's highest court.

Nervous silence turned to wild cheers as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and all but voided Proposition 8, which has banned same-sex marriage in California for more than four years.

"How did we get so lucky to be born at the time we get the same rights as everybody else?" marveled San Francisco resident Jenni Chang, 31, in the same wedding dress she wore just weeks ago in a ceremony not sanctioned by the state. "We won't be discriminated against anymore," said her beaming partner, Lisa Dazols, 34.

But as gay-marriage advocates celebrated from the high court's steps in Washington, D.C., to San Francisco's gay Castro District, advocates in other states had a more muted reaction, knowing Wednesday's rulings are only another signpost in their journey.

Because the justices dealt with Proposition 8 only as a matter of the proponents' legal standing and not on the measure's constitutionality, it won't affect nearly three dozen other states' same-sex marriage bans.

But for President Barack Obama, the demise of DOMA -- which denied federal benefits to legally married gay couples -- appeared to be the more significant decision.

"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 said.

Conservatives, however, roundly condemned the court's rulings. "The Supreme Court, though they may think so, have not risen to the level of God," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota.

Michael Wald, a Stanford Law School professor emeritus, said the DOMA ruling might lay the groundwork for future challenges to gay-marriage bans. He predicted courts will see more lawsuits brought by same-sex couples who marry in one state but then move to another and demand recognition there. He said the DOMA ruling's affirmation of equal-protection rights might bolster those couples' arguments that states with same-sex marriage bans must recognize their bonds.

He and other legal experts predict that gay-marriage activists might still find legislatures and ballot measures to be better bets for gaining ground -- particularly in states like California where there's the strongest possibility of winning.

Although 52 percent of California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008, recent polls show a sizable majority now approve of same-sex marriage, reflecting a rising tide of support across the country that has left gay-marriage advocates ecstatic.

Among them is Enrique Chavez, of Alameda, who after the Supreme Court rulings Wednesday morning waved his giant American flag on a hot pink pole, eliciting honks from passing cars while yelling, "We got it!"

Asked why he brought the flag, he replied: "I get to believe in my country again."

For Leo Gkimisis, who originally is from Greece and has lived in San Francisco for five years, the rulings mean new possibilities for many of his friends: binational gay couples who have had to live in separate countries because their marriages are not legally recognized in the U.S.

"Many people have to decide whether to move away with their loved ones or live here and pay the consequences," said Gkimisis, who has seen at least three couples torn apart by various visa and green-card issues.

In Walnut Creek, gay-marriage supporters stood atop the Treat Boulevard overpass at Interstate 680 during the morning commute, waving rainbow and American flags as cars and trucks honked their horns in support.

Will McGarvey, 45, of Benicia, said it's all about religious freedom.

"I know a lot of folks use a religious rationale for withholding gay marriage," said McGarvey, pastor of Pittsburg's Community Presbyterian Church. But "we live in a democratic republic with the division of church and state."

McGarvey -- who has 11 gay couples in his congregation and is ready to officiate weddings for three of them, including his sister-in-law and her partner -- wished the ruling would have gone even further: "I wish the Supreme Court would go further to ban discrimination in every state."

Not everyone in the Bay Area shared that view.

Yogi Jorgensen, of Menlo Park, said the court's action "doesn't bother me, to each his own," but then added that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. "I'm old school. I don't see why they just can't have a legal term for togetherness. But I certainly don't want a couple not to be together."

In downtown Palo Alto, construction worker Mario Rodriguez, 62, said through a translator that he believes "matrimony should be between a man and a woman for the stability of society and for the sake of children."

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, spoke for many same-sex marriage opponents Wednesday in calling the court's Proposition 8 ruling "disappointing."

"The political elite, who did not agree with the election results, refused to defend the people's vote," he said. "It calls into question the very nature of the people's right to bypass the political system and directly assert their will using the democratic process."

Staff writers Matthias Gafni, Thomas Peele, Mark Emmons and Bonnie Eslinger contributed to this report. Contact Josh Richman at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.