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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama applauded a Supreme Court decision on Wednesday that made married gay men and women eligible for federal benefits, and he directed Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure the ruling is implemented.
"The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free," Obama said.
Obama got the news of the court's decision as he flew aboard Air Force One to start a week-long trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
The court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that denied federal benefits to same-sex married couples.
"This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it," he said.
Obama said he had directed Holder to work with other Cabinet chiefs to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure the decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.
From the plane, Obama phoned plaintiffs in the case on their cell phones to congratulate them as they stood outside the Supreme Court.
"You guys should be very proud of today," he told them.
In his statement, Obama said the ruling applies only to civil marriages and that how religious institutions define and consecrate marriages has always been up to those institutions.
The president last year announced his support for same-sex marriage in the midst of his re-election campaign after considering the issue for years.
Obama was to land later in Senegal, where homosexuality is against the law. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama might raise the issue with Senegalese leaders.
"You can assume that that's something that is both a concern to the president and the administration, and that would be something that we would discuss," Carney told reporters on Air Force One.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham and Vicki Allen)