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A federal appeals court in Boston today considers whether the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. That 1996 law prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Now, gay plaintiffs who were legally married under state law in Massachusetts are suing. They argue the federal law denies them benefits that are given to heterosexual married couples.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has more.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Herbert Burtis met the person he wanted to marry in college, in 1948. But, since the object of his affection was another man, they had to wait until 2004, when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages.

HERBERT BURTIS: It's a long engagement. We thought it was about time that we made each other honest people.

HAGERTY: His spouse, John Ferris, died four years ago. When Burtis went to the Social Security office to apply for survivor benefits, the clerk told him the federal government did not recognize his marriage.

BURTIS: You feel like: Why am I a second-class citizen? I thought, you know, our marriage license was a legal document. And if it's legal for a man and a woman, it should be legal for a man and a man. And I couldn't see why there would be prejudice in that.

HAGERTY: Burtis, who's 82, is not alone, says Mary Bonauto. She's an attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD. She's representing seven couples and three survivors who are challenging the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

MARY BONAUTO: These couples have waited for decades to marry. They have paid their taxes. They have paid into the system. But they alone are excluded from every conceivable federal marital protection and obligation.

HAGERTY: Unlike heterosexual married couples, they can't file a joint tax return. They can't take guaranteed time off from work to care for a sick spouse. They can't get insurance, pension or inheritance benefits, to name a few. Bonauto says DOMA creates two classes of marriage.

BONAUTO: All married people are treated one way by the federal government, except same-sex couples.

LYNN WARDLE: They're not married. Under federal law, they are not married.

HAGERTY: Lynn Wardle is a professor at Brigham Young University Law School. In general, he says, each state sets the criteria for marriage - how old you must be, or whether you can marry your first cousin. But he says when giving out federal benefits, Congress can decide what marriages to recognize. And that's what it did in 1996.

WARDLE: Congress says, historically, it's been a man and a woman, and that is the institution that we want to protect.

HAGERTY: More than three dozen states have laws enshrining that. And Wardle says the proper way to change DOMA is not through the courts.

WARDLE: If the plaintiffs in the case that are now up in the Court of Appeals would simply spend their efforts going to Congress, Congress could change that. What they're attempting to do is, I think, political manipulation of our judiciary.

HAGERTY: But society has changed radically since 1996, says law Professor Andrew Koppelman at Northwestern University. He says DOMA is past its cultural expiration date.

ANDREW KOPPELMAN: So the idea that these families don't count as families and aren't entitled to any of the legal entitlements of families just seems weird now.

HAGERTY: And the law has changed, too. In recent years, six states and the District of Columbia have recognized same-sex marriage. Two federal courts have struck down DOMA. And last year, the Justice Department, which has the role of defending federal laws, announced it would no longer defend DOMA because, it said, the law illegally discriminates against gay couples. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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