A US appeals court today declared that the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to married gay couples, a groundbreaking ruling all but certain to wind up before the Supreme Court. The unanimous ruling said the 1996 law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman discriminates against gay couples because it doesn't give them the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples. The three-judge panel of the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals wasn't asked to address whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.
The panel also didn't rule on the law's other politically combustible provision, which said states without same-sex marriage cannot be forced to recognize gay unions performed in states where it's legal. The appeals court, the first federal appeals panel to deem the benefits section of the law unconstitutional, agreed with a lower-court judge who ruled in 2010 that DOMA is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns. (Read more Defense of Marriage Act stories.)