A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional.
The ruling — nearly certain to be appealed to the Supreme Court — was a major victory for the gay rights movement, who long have opposed the law that denies a host of federal benefits to same-sex married couples.
Advocates immediately cheered the ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
The law, known as DOMA, was passed in 1996 amid a furor over same-sex marriage. Since then, eight states — starting with Massachusetts in 2004 — have permitted gay marriage while scores of others have banned it.
The law came under a storm of criticism from the left, and President Obama announced last year that the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer defend its constitutionality.
Immediately, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) assembled a group to defend it.
The Boston court agreed with a lower court judge who ruled in 2010 that DOMA was flawed because it blocked the right of a state to define marriage.
That judge also decreed that it was unconstitutional to deny gay married couples the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts, including to file joint tax returns.
Those defending the law argued that Congress has the right to define marriage and has the power to define the terms needed to hand out federal benefits.
They also contended that removing DOMA would force states that ban gay marriage to recognize the rights of gay couples married in states that do not.
Earlier this month, Obama became the first sitting President to support same-sex marriage. His White House opponent, Mitt Romney, strongly opposes the ability of gay couples to marry.
With News Wire Services