BOSTON A federal appeals court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in a unanimous ruling Thursday, becoming the first appeals court ever to rule against the federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The three-judge panel of the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston affirmed a lower court's ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional because it denies federal benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry.
The ruling, which will be appealed, would force the United States to recognize same-sex marriages from the seven states and the District of Columbia where it is legal, and by extension grant federal benefits, such as tax breaks and federal employee spousal insurance, to same-sex couples.
DOMA was passed in 1996 by a bipartisan 84 percent of those in Congress and signed by President Clinton. The appeals court ruling did not overrule another major section of DOMA that gives states latitude in defining marriage. That section was not challenged.
The ruling struck down Section 3 of the act, the part defining marriage for federal purposes.
"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," the court said. "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."
In 2010, a U.S. district judge ruled concerning DOMA that government cannot constitutionally distinguish between traditional marriage and same-sex marriage.
In the appeals court ruling, Judge Michael Boudin, appointed to the bench in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, wrote, "If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress' will, this statute fails that test."
In reaching the judgment, the court said Congress was not necessarily hostile to gays.
"The many legislators who supported DOMA acted from a variety of motives, one central and expressed aim being to preserve the heritage of marriage as traditionally defined over centuries of Western civilization," Boudin wrote.
"... For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute.... But Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern."
DOMA limits tax and social security benefits to couples in opposite-sex marriages, the court said, and in cases where one partner in a legally recognized same-sex marriage is a federal employee, the act prohibits the other partner from receiving provisions for retirement and medical care, which are, "in practice, the main components of the social safety net for vast numbers of Americans."
Dale Schowengerdt, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said society should protect and strengthen traditional marriage rather than undermine it. ADF, a Christian legal group, has worked to defend DOMA.
"The federal Defense of Marriage Act provides that type of protection, and we trust the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the First Circuit's erroneous decision," Schowengerdt said in a statement.
The ruling stemmed from a pair of lawsuits from Massachusetts, one by the state's attorney general and another by the homosexual group GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders).
"In allowing one state to hold the federal government, and potentially other states, hostage to redefine marriage, the First Circuit attempts a bridge too far. Under this rationale, if just one state decided to accept polygamy, the federal government and perhaps other states would be forced to accept it, too," Schowengerdt said.
Congress banned polygamy in the 19th century, and it "has the authority to step in against this attempt at marriage redefinition as well," Schowengerdt said.
The ruling comes less than a month after President Obama became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage, telling ABC News, "I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
Last year Obama announced that his administration would no longer argue for DOMA's constitutionality, and since then the Justice Department actually started filing legal briefs arguing that the law should be overturned.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley praised the ruling by the appeals court.
"Today's landmark ruling makes clear once again that DOMA is a discriminatory law for which there is no justification," Coakley said. "It is unconstitutional for the federal government to create a system of first- and second-class marriages, and it does harm to families in Massachusetts every day. All Massachusetts couples should be afforded the same rights and protections under the law, and we hope that this decision will be the final step toward ensuring that equality for all."
The Alliance Defense Fund noted that marriage has a 15-year record of winning at the ballot box.
"Even as President Obama announced his support for changing marriage into something else, he recognized that it was up to the people of each state to decide, just as voters in 31 states have already done in overwhelmingly protecting marriage as the union of one man and one woman," Schowengerdt said.
"The First Circuit's support of this same principle suggests that it is constitutional for California's voters to enact Proposition 8 -- and that all of the other state constitutional amendments and statutes defining marriage as a man and a woman are constitutional as well," Schowengerdt added.
Chief Judge Sandra Lynch, a Clinton nominee, and Judge Juan Torruella, a Reagan nominee, joined in the opinion.