BOSTON — A battle over a federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman appears headed for the Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled Thursday that denying benefits to married gay couples is unconstitutional.
In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston said the 1996 law deprives gay couples of the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples.
The court didn't rule on the law's more politically combustible provision – that states without same-sex marriage cannot be forced to recognize gay unions performed in states where it's legal. It also wasn't asked to address whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.
The law was passed at a time when it appeared Hawaii would legalize gay marriage. Since then, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have approved the practice, led by Massachusetts in 2004.
The court, the first federal appeals panel to rule against the benefits section of the law, agreed with a lower court judge who in 2010 concluded that the law interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns. The ruling came in two lawsuits, one filed by the Boston-based legal group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the other by state Attorney General Martha Coakley.