The ruling is a victory for gay-rights advocates and the Obama administration, which had refused to defend that part of the 1996 law.
The decision sets the stage for a ruling next year by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the law that limits federal recognition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman.
The Boston-based judges stressed their decision did not establish a national right to gay marriage. That issue remains a matter for the states, they said.
But in states such as Massachusetts, where gays and lesbians can legally marry, the federal government cannot deny these couples the right to file a joint federal tax return or to receive a survivor's benefit under the Social Security Act, the appeals court said.
The court's opinion said there are more than 100,000 legally married gay and lesbian couples in the half-dozen states that have legalized same-sex marriages.
Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to prevent same-sex marriages in one state from being legally recognized by all states. Usually, a couple's marriage in one state is recognized as valid in all states. However, the federal law said no state "shall be required to give effect" to a "relationship between persons of the same sex." Moreover, it said that under federal law, a marriage "means only the legal union between one man and one woman."
The case decided Thursday dealt only with this latter provision involving federal law and benefits. » | David G. Savage | Thursday, May 31, 2012