Boston appeals court hears gay-marriage law case

Published April 4, 2012 7:09AM (EDT)

BOSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court in Boston is set to hear arguments in a legal battle over a law that denies federal benefits to married gay couples.

The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

In 2010, a federal judge in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal, declared a key section of the law unconstitutional.

Judge Joseph Tauro found that the law interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples a host of federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns.

A bipartisan congressional group is appealing Tauro's ruling to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that the federal government has a legitimate interest in defining marriage and deciding federal benefits. The case was to be heard on Wednesday.

Tauro ruled after Attorney General Martha Coakley and the legal group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders challenged the law, known as DOMA.

In the state's lawsuit, Coakley argued that the law interferes with Massachusetts' right to make its own marriage laws and forces it to violate the constitutional rights of its residents.

Jo Ann Whitehead and Bette Jo Green of Boston are plaintiffs in GLAD's lawsuit. They have been together nearly three decades and were married shortly after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004. They estimate the DOMA law has cost them about $1,000 a year because they can't file a joint federal tax return, and has cost Whitehead about $3,600 a year in spousal Social Security benefits.

The law was enacted when it appeared Hawaii would legalize same-sex marriage, and opponents worried that other states would be forced to recognize them. Many states have since passed bans on gay marriage, and others have approved them.

Besides Massachusetts, the District of Columbia and seven states — Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland and Washington — have legalized gay marriages. The laws in Maryland and Washington are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.

By Salon Staff

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