In two separate cases that test the law as never before, a three-judge panel on the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston has found that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
DOMA prevents the US government from recognizing same-sex marriages even in states where such marriages are legal so couples cannot file joint federal tax returns or receive survivor benefits if one spouse dies.
The judges found that denial of federal benefits that opposite-sex couples automatically enjoy violates the guarantee of equal protection under the US Constitution.
The case is next likely to be heard by the US Supreme Court.
DOMA was passed by both houses of Congress by wide margins in 1996 and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Last year, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA.
The judges wrote in their opinion: 'Invalidating a federal statute is an unwelcome responsibility for federal judges; the elected Congress speaks for the entire nation, its judgment and good faith being entitled to utmost respect. But a lower federal court such as ours must follow its best understanding of governing precedent, knowing that in large matters the Supreme Court will correct mis-readings (and even if it approves the result will formulate its own explanation).'
The cases at the center of the appeal are Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which was filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
The ruling comes in the same month that Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday that the appeals court ruling is 'in concert with the president's views.'
The American Foundation for Equal Rights, which scored a federal victory of its own by getting California's Proposition 8 declared unconstitutional, called the First Circuit Court of Appeals decision 'momentous.'
AFER Executive Director Adam Umhoefer called it 'yet another example of the clear pattern of consistent recognition among federal courts that marriage inequality—by any level of government—violates our nation’s core constitutional principles. Whether it is California’s Proposition 8 or the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, court after court has affirmed that marriage discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans is unfair, unjust, and unconstitutional.'
Since DOMA was passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage. Meanwhile, eight states have approved it, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington state and the District of Columbia.