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BOSTON—The controversial federal law that effectively denies married same-sex couples the same federal benefits afforded to heterosexual couples violates constitutional guarantee of equal protection, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, legally recognizes marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Though the law does not invalidate same-sex marriages, it does prohibit gay couples from filing joint federal tax returns or collecting their spouse's Social Security after their death. It also prevents gay federal employees from enrolling their spouse in government-sponsored health care plans and precludes other marriage benefits granted to couples of the opposite sex.
On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled unanimously that sections of the law are unconstitutional for discriminating against lawfully married gay couples.
“DOMA affects a thousand or more generic cross-references to marriage in myriad federal laws,” Judge Michael Boudin wrote for the court. “In most cases, the changes operate to the disadvantage of same-sex married couples in the half dozen or so states that permit same-sex marriage.”
“The number of couples thus affected is estimated at more than 100,000,” he added.
Seven married same-sex couples and three widowers of gay spouses filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Boston in 2009 seeking to block federal employers from enforcing the DOMA restrictions. The appeals court's decision upholds the district court's July 2010 ruling, which also found sections of the law unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Though the Justice Department had argued that the law was constitutional at the district level, the agency later dropped its defense of the statute. A group of Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives took up the law's defense in the Justice Department's absence, and was its chief advocate during the appeal.
In addition to their discriminatory elements, the appeals court panel said the DOMA provisions denying benefits to same-sex couples failed to adequately demonstrate a protection of federal interests.
“One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage,” Judge Boudin wrote. “Supreme Court decisions in the last 50 years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is to hear a similar challenge to DOMA in September.