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A federal appeals court in Boston has struck down as unconstitutional part of the Defense of Marriage Act. But the court said that, ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to answer this question: Can the government deny federal economic benefits to same-sex couples who marry in states where same-sex marriage is legal? NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, was enacted in 1996 and signed by President Clinton. Under the law, the federal government is barred from recognizing same-sex marriage even in states where such unions are legal. The result is that the federal law denies all federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Seven of these couples and three widowers who were legally married in Massachusetts challenged the law in court, claiming it denied them equal protection of the law.

Today, a three-judge federal court panel ruled in their favor, noting that under the law, same-sex couples were denied federal benefits that heterosexual married couples are entitled to. Among those benefits are Social Security spousal and survivors awards, health care benefits for spouses of federal employees and tax advantages for married couples.

The decision was unanimous. Writing for the court, Judge Michael Boudin observed that most Americans live in states where same-sex marriage is banned and that only a half dozen or so states have legalized such unions. That diversity, he said, is one of the virtues of federalism, and Congress, in enacting DOMA, simply did not offer adequate justification for denying federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married.

As to the law's stated purpose of supporting the tradition of marriage between a man and a woman, Boudin said that for 150 years, that rationale might have sufficed. But in the last half century, the Supreme Court's decisions have called for closer scrutiny of government action touching on the interests of minority groups and the long-recognized power of the states to regulate marriage. Judge Boudin was appointed by President George H.W. Bush. His opinion was joined by Judge Sandra Lynch, appointed by President Clinton, and Judge Juan Torruella, appointed by President Reagan.

The couples who brought the challenge to DOMA were elated, among them 70-year-old Bette Jo Green, a retired labor and delivery nurse, and her spouse, who have been together for 30 years and were married right after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts. They've been seeking Social Security benefits. Marlin Nabors and his spouse sued, noting that because they couldn't file a joint married tax return, their taxes were nearly $3,000 more each year.

MARLIN NABORS: How validating it is to know that the appeal court judges sat around a conference table and came to the same conclusions that Jonathan and I have come to around our coffee table that we deserve to be treated like every other married couple.

TOTENBERG: Everyone, including the three-judge panel, acknowledged, however, that this case is headed straight to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mary Bonauto, the lawyer for the couples, cast the decision as a narrow one that she contended could appeal to conservative as well as liberal members of the high court.

MARY BONAUTO: This one is a real outlier because it inserts Congress into an area that states govern.

TOTENBERG: But Gary Bauer, chairman of American Values, a conservative public policy group, sees the decision as the camel's nose in the tent.

GARY BAUER: This is the way over the last 30 years that courts in the United States have ordered radical social change. American elites overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage. They see it as the civil rights struggle of modern times. The only problem is the American people disagree.

TOTENBERG: President Obama, just weeks ago, for the first time endorsed gay marriage but said in his view the question is still up to the states. His Justice Department, after initially defending DOMA in the lower courts, made a highly unusual legal U-turn to side with the couples challenging the law. At that point, the House Republican leadership hired their own lawyer to defend the law in court. But today, no member of the GOP House leadership was available for comment. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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