A federal appeals court in Boston found on Thursday that a U.S. law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples in a ruling that promises to push the issue of gay marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling on the 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act, marked a victory for gay rights groups and U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration announced last year it considered the law unconstitutional and would no longer defend it.
In its 3-0 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit concluded that the law discriminates against gay couples. Eight of the 50 U.S. states permit gay marriage, including Massachusetts, which became the first in 2004.
"Congress' denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest," Judge Michael Boudin wrote for the three-judge panel.
The issue of gay marriage is an emotional and divisive one in the United States. Obama on May 9 said he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, marking the first time a U.S. president publicly expressed support for gay marriage.
The White House said the ruling reflected Obama's view that the law is unconstitutional. Obama is seeking re-election on November 6.
Gay rights advocates hailed Thursday's ruling.
"For the first time, a federal appeals court has recognized that our Constitution will not tolerate a law that forces the federal government to deny lawfully married same-sex couples equal treatment. The writing is clearly on the wall for the demise of this unjust and indefensible law that hurts real families," said Joe Solmonese, president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.
Plaintiffs, including seven married same-sex couples and three widowers, said the law, which prevents them from filing joint federal tax returns or collecting survivor benefits from the Social Security retirement program, denied them equal protections guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Bette Jo Green, one of the plaintiffs in the case, welcomed the decision. Green, 70, has been married to Jo Ann Whitehead, 70, since 2004.
"How thrilling it is for us to know that the court believes in protecting our right to Social Security benefits as with all the other married couples in the country," Green said.
Mary Bonauto of the Massachusetts advocacy group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who served as the lead attorney for the 17 plaintiffs, said she expects this case now to be taken by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We think this is a case that really could appeal to all members of the court because it is not only a double standard ... this law is also a real outlier because it inserts Congress into an area that states govern," Bonauto said.
In a companion case also on appeal, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley argued that Congress overstepped its authority and violated the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in passing the law because it undermined states' abilities to recognize marriage equality.
Lawyers for the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives (BLAG) had defended the 1996 law.
A federal judge in Massachusetts declared a key section of the law unconstitutional in 2010, and the appeals court agreed.
The 1st Circuit panel recognized that many Americans believe marriage to be a union between a man and a woman. But the panel concluded that federalism permits diversity of governance based on local decisions, and that choice also applied to states' decisions to legalize same-sex marriage.
"It is unconstitutional for the federal government to create a system of first- and second-class marriages," Coakley said in a statement.
Among the plaintiffs is Dean Hara, the widower of Gerry Studds, a former U.S. congressman who died in 2006. Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress, and Hara were married one week after same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts. Hara was not eligible to receive the pension provided to surviving spouses of former members of Congress.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, criticized the ruling as an attack on the traditional definition of marriage.
"For a Massachusetts-based court to just audaciously proclaim that the federal government is wrong and has to recognize a unique social experiment in Massachusetts for the purpose of providing benefits is bizarre and a violation of the principles of our federalist system," Mineau said.
On May 24, a California federal judge found the law unconstitutional for denying federal benefits to same-sex couples. Another federal judge in San Francisco reached the same conclusion in February in a case currently on appeal before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.