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. "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."
During arguments before the court last month, a lawyer for gay married couples said the law amounts to "across-the-board disrespect." The couples argued that the power to define and regulate marriage had been left to the states for more than 200 years before Congress passed DOMA.
Paul Clement, a Washington, D.C., attorney who defended the law on behalf of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, argued that Congress had a rational basis for passing it in 1996, when opponents worried that states would be forced to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. The group said Congress wanted to preserve a traditional and uniform definition of marriage and has the power to define terms used to federal statutes to distribute federal benefits.
Clement did not immediately return a message left Thursday. The legal group could ask for the case to be reheard by the full 1st Circuit, which typically sits six judges, or could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take on the case.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the Boston-based legal group that brought one of the lawsuits on behalf of seven gay married couples and three widowers, said the law takes one group of legally married people and treats them as "a different class" by making them ineligible for benefits given to other married couples.
"We've been working on this issue for so many years, and for the court to acknowledge that yes, same-sex couples are legally married, just as any other couple, is fantastic and extraordinary," said Lee Swislow, GLAD's executive director.
Two of the three judges who decided the case Thursday were Republican appointees, while the other was a Democratic appointee. Boudin was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, while Judge Juan Torruella was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Chief Judge Sandra Lynch is an appointee of President Bill Clinton.
In California, two federal judges have found this year that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the due process rights of legally married same-sex couples.
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.
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