(CNN) — A key part of the law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage was struck down as unconstitutional by a U.S. appeals court Thursday. The Defense of Marriage Act — known as DOMA — defines marriage for federal purposes as unions exclusively between a man and woman.
At issue is whether the federal government can deny tax, health and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry. The ruling is a boost for gay rights advocates and the Obama administration, which in a rare move, has refused to defend a federal law in court. “If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress’ will, this statute fails that test,” said the three judge panel.
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The 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, based in Boston, did not rule on the federal law’s other key provision: that states that do not allow same-sex marriages cannot be forced to recognize such unions performed in other states. Traditionally, marriages in one jurisdiction are considered valid across the country.
DOMA was enacted in 1996, when Hawaii was considering legalizing same-sex marriage.
Marriage between two males or two females is legal in the District of Columbia and six states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. It is set to become legal in Washington state next week and in Maryland in January, but in each state the implementation could be delayed by opponents placing the question on the November ballot.
Many other states have legalized domestic partnerships and civil unions for such couples, including New Jersey, Illinois, Delaware, Rhode Island and Hawaii, a step designed in most cases to provide the same rights of marriage under state law.
But other states have passed laws or state constitutional amendments banning such marriages.