NEW YORK - A U.S. appeals court in New York on Thursday ruled that a U.S. law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is now the second federal appeals court to reject part of the Defense of Marriage Act. It upheld a lower court ruling that had found a central part of the law unconstitutional.
Appeals in several cases are currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could choose to take up the issue in its current term.
Two members of a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old woman who argued that the law discriminates against gay couples in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
They found that gays and lesbians are entitled to heightened protection from the courts, based on the history of discrimination the group has suffered.
"Homosexuals are not in a position to adequately protect themselves from the discriminatory wishes of the majoritarian public," Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote for the majority.
Six states have legalized same-sex marriage, including New York in 2011. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed in 1996, federal law and government programs do not recognize those marriages.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Windsor by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court in New York. Windsor is a former IBM computer programmer who married Thea Clara Spyer in Toronto, Canada, in 2007. The two were engaged in 1967.
Spyer died in 2009 after a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis, leaving all of her property to Windsor. Because the marriage was not recognized under federal law, Windsor had to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes, according to her lawsuit.
Windsor's attorneys argued that the act violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
The Obama administration said last year it considered the law unconstitutional and would no longer defend it. Instead, a group appointed by the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is defending the law in courts across the country.
The appeals court rejected the group's arguments that the law was necessary to maintain a uniform definition of marriage, that it served the government's interest of saving money and that it was necessary to encourage procreation.
One member of the panel, Judge Chester Straub, dissented, arguing that the federal definition of marriage should be left to the political process.
"If this understanding is to be changed, I believe it is for the American people to do so," he wrote.
The case is Windsor v. USA et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-2335.