Federal appeals court rules Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional

A federal appeals court on Thursday struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

In the ruling, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston said the law discriminates against gay couples by not giving them the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples and is unconstitutional.

Appeals Court Judge Michael Boudin, an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush, wrote the unanimous decision, but acknowledged the issue would likely end up before the Supreme Court.

“Supreme Court review of DOMA is highly likely,” Boudin wrote, adding that “we have done our best to discern the direction of these precedents, but only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.”

Boudin wrote that the law was unconstitutional because same-sex couples married under a Massachusetts state law would be denied federal benefits provided to heterosexual couples.

“Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress’ denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest,’’ he wrote.

The court also ruled the law interfered with the right of states to define marriage.

DOMA could come before the Supreme Court as early the fall, intensifying the national debate over gay marriage that has become an election issue in the fight between Republican Mitt Romney and President Obama, who endorsed gay marriage earlier this month.

Still, Obama has stopped short of saying whether his administration would push to repeal the law, and after the White House pulled the DOJ from the matter, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hired the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) to defend DOMA on behalf of the U.S. government.

Boehner’s office referred questions on the decision to Paul Clement, the lawyer representing the House. 

Clement said no decisions on legal strategy have been made, but that “we have always been clear we expect this matter ultimately to be decided by the Supreme Court, and that has not changed.” Clement is a partner at Bancroft PLLC.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) offered cheers for the decision.

“Today’s ruling is a significant step forward in our march toward equality for LGBT Americans,” Pelosi said. “Now, for the first time in American history, a federal appeals court has recognized that a law denying federal benefits to same-sex married couples is unconstitutional, we move closer to the day when marriage equality is a reality for all.”

Pelosi ripped the ongoing defense of DOMA in a separate statement.

“With this decision, once again a federal court has rejected the position of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which is a single-minded effort by Republicans in Congress to defend discrimination at great expense to the American taxpayer,” she said.

While polls show support for gay marriage is increasing, measures have been approved in some states, including recently in swing-state North Carolina, to define marriage as between a man and a women.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney says that he believes marriage to be “a relationship between a man and a woman.”

Obama said he had concluded “personally” that same-sex couples should have that right, and he has also declared his belief that DOMA is unconstitutional.

“There’s no question that this [court ruling] is in concert with the president’s views,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a press conference on Thursday.

At the same time, Obama has said states should have the right to ban gay marriage.

In addition to Boudin, the three-judge panel included another Republican appointee, Judge Juan Torruella, seated by former President Ronald Reagan, and Judge Sandra Lynch, a pick by former President Bill Clinton.

This story was posted at 10:39 a.m. and last updated at 3:19 p.m.

Tags Bill Clinton Boehner John Boehner

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