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Supporters of gay marriage are cheering a federal court ruling out of Boston. The judge said yesterday that part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act - or DOMA - is unconstitutional. That's the law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Gay rights advocates say the court ruling could bring federal recognition to gay marriages from Massachusetts. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: The case was brought by eight gay couples who argued the federal government was unfairly denying them basic perks that other married couples get, like social security benefits and certain tax breaks.
They argued that the federal government has always deferred to states on who's married - for example, in terms of age or race. So if Massachusetts says they're married, they should be recognized as married.
Federal District Court Judge Joseph Tauro agreed, saying that when it comes to providing benefits, he could conceive of, quote, "no way" in which a couple's sexual orientation is relevant.
Ms. NANCY GILL: I was cooking dinner and I heard it, and I just let out a big woo-hoo.
SMITH: For Nancy Gill, it means that her longtime partner Marcelle Letourneau, who she married in 2006, can now get health insurance through Gill's job with the U.S. Postal Service.
Ms. MARCELLE LETOURNEAU: I just think how life-changing this can be for our family. And, I mean, it gives us peace of mind.
SMITH: The court ruled that denying benefits to gay couples was not only discriminatory, but also a violation of states' rights. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley made that argument in a parallel, separate suit, accusing the federal government of encroaching on state sovereignty, and the court agreed.
Attorney General MARTHA COAKLEY (Massachusetts): It's exactly the result that we that wanted, which was to say the federal government really doesn't have an interest in telling Massachusetts, and has never in the past had an ability to dictate how states define marriage. Marriage has been an issue that has been decided by the states.
SMITH: It's an argument particularly infuriating to conservative opponents, who've used the states' rights argument to fight gay marriage. They insist that Congress was well within its rights in 1996 to define marriage for the purpose of federal programs. And they say it's the judge who overstepped yesterday when he ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act had absolutely no rational basis, and in legal terms, amounts to, quote, "irrational prejudice."
Brian Brown is with the National Organization for Marriage.
Mr. BRIAN BROWN (National Organization for Marriage): That's absurd to say that the voters in 31 states, who've held that marriage is the union of a man and woman, are somehow bigots. That's absurd. And what this judge is essentially doing is declaring a new cultural war.
SMITH: The judge's ruling is limited in scope. It applies only to Massachusetts couples, and it deals only with federal recognition of gay marriage. It does not limit a state's right to reject other states' gay marriage. And the case is far more narrow than the one now pending in California, that argues that any ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.
But Ohio State University professor Marc Spindelman says the Massachusetts decision may prove to be broadly influential.
Professor MARC SPINDELMAN (Ohio State University): The court's decision doesn't box any other court in, but it's certainly likely to be persuasive authority and virtually certain to have significant ripple effects.
SMITH: That ripple will grow if the Massachusetts decision survives expected challenges and makes it up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Obama administration lawyers are not yet commenting, but an appeal is likely. The president opposes DOMA, but administration lawyers say it's their job to defend the law, and they can't pick and choose based on policy preferences.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.