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A federal appeals court in Boston declared on Thursday that the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally discriminates against homosexual couples, a landmark ruling that sets the stage for the Supreme Court to take a formal look at the law barring federal recognition of gay and lesbian couples.
The denial of benefits to married same-sex couples is not "adequately supported by any permissible federal interest," the three-member panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals found in a unanimous ruling, the Associated Press reports.
Seven married same-sex couples and three widowers led the case against DOMA, arguing that the law denies them constitutionally-guaranteed protections, Reuters explains. The federal law defines marriage exclusively as between a man and a woman, and denies gay couples federal privileges granted to heterosexual couples, like filing joint tax returns and collecting Social Security survivor benefits.
The ruling won't make same-sex couples eligible for federal benefits, however, because the court said it won't enforce its decision until the Supreme Court decides the case. That move effectively allows the circuit judges to register their opinion while punting the issue to the high court. Regardless, it is considered a landmark decision in the national gay marriage debate.
Congress passed DOMA in 1996 when Hawaii seemed close to legalizing gay marriage. The law effectively halted the movement at the time, but eight states, including Massachusetts, have legalized it since. Several other states have passed their own, individually-crafted bans on same-sex unions.
Although the ruling is likely to further stir up the ongoing national conversation about marriage equality, the court avoided the most contentious points. The judges didn’t address a second part of DOMA, which says that states without same-sex marriage are not required to recognize unions performed in other states. They also didn’t offer an opinion on whether same-sex marriage should be constitutionally protected.
The appeals court reinforced the ruling of a Massachusetts federal judge in 2010 who also found the law unconstitutional.