A federal appeals court Thursday declared that the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to married same-sex couples; a groundbreaking ruling all but certain to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an unanimous decision, the three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston declared that the 1996 law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman deprives same-sex couples of the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples.
According to CBS News, the court didn't rule on the law's more controversial provision, which says states without same-sex marriage cannot be forced to recognize same-sex unions performed in states where it's legal. It also wasn't asked to address whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
CBS senior legal analyst Andrew Cohen said the Supreme Court could take up the case as early as its next term, which usually begins in October:
"This is a big deal," said Cohen. "It's the first federal appeals court to strike down the federal law, and it did so unanimously with two Republican appointees ruling that the statute unconstitutionally violates."
"For me, it's more just about having equality and not having a system of first- and second-class marriages," said plaintiff Jonathan Knight, "I think we can do better, as a country, than that."
Knight said DOMA costs the couple an extra $1,000 a year because they cannot file a joint federal tax return.
Opponents of same-sex marriage blasted the decision.
"This ruling that a state can mandate to the federal government the definition of marriage for the sake of receiving federal benefits, we find really bizarre, rather arrogant, if I may say so," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.
Last year, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of the law.
After Obama voiced his backing of same-sex marriage, a CBS News/New York Times poll showed 38 percent of Americans said they believe same-sex couples should be allowed to get married. Twenty-four percent think they should form civil unions. Thirty-three percent are against any legal recognition at all.
Although most Americans live in states where the law still is that marriage can only be the union of a man and a woman, the power to define marriage had always been left to the individual states before Congress passed DOMA, the appeals court said in its ruling.
"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 Michael Boudin wrote for the court.
In the most recent case, a judge found the law unconstitutional because it denies long-term health insurance benefits to legal spouses of state employees and retirees. The judge also said a section of the federal tax code that makes the domestic partners of state workers ineligible for long-term care insurance violates the civil rights of people in gay and lesbian relationships.
We're glad to see that the court is on the side of equality.