A federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled Thursday that the federal statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman unlawfully discriminates against same-sex married couples by denying them equal federal benefits.
The court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, is the second federal appeals court to reject a central portion of the federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, which handed down its ruling in May.
But the decision Thursday is the first time that an appeals court has subjected the law to a relatively tough test for constitutionality that, in effect, elevates issues of sexual orientation to the constitutional level of cases involving sexual discrimination.
The Supreme Court may take up the issue as soon as the current term.
Two of the three judges on the Manhattan court ruled in favor of Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old woman whose case challenged the 1996 statute, saying it violated the Constitution's equal-protection clause because it recognizes the marriages of heterosexual couples but not those of same-sex couples, even though New York state law makes no such distinction.
Windsor, who filed the lawsuit in November 2010, married her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007.
The two had been together for 44 years.
Although the marriage was recognized in New York, when Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was not able to claim a deduction for a federal estate tax that is available for the surviving partner of a marriage between heterosexuals.
Windsor, who had been the sole beneficiary of Spyer's estate, was forced to pay $363,053 in estate taxes.
When she requested a refund, the Internal Revenue Service rejected her claim, citing federal marriage law.
Judge Dennis Jacobs, who wrote the majority opinion, said the federal law was "not related to an important government interest," concluding that "homosexuals are not in a position to adequately protect themselves from the discriminatory wishes of the majoritarian public."
The statute, approved by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, denies recognition of same-sex marriages by the federal government. In the intervening years, however, several states, including New York, have approved same-sex marriage, though others have passed laws banning it.
In February 2011, the Obama administration determined that the provision of the law that prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, and President Barack Obama said he had directed the Department of Justice not to defend that aspect of the law in court.