BOSTON — Fresh from a favorable ruling by a federal appeals court, Dorene Bowe-Shulman can’t wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on whether same-sex married couples should get the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.
“I really look forward to the next step,” said Bowe-Shulman, one of 17 people from Massachusetts who sued to challenge the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
On Thursday, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law’s denial of an array of federal benefits to same-sex couples is unconstitutional, affirming a ruling by a federal judge in 2010. Opponents and supporters of gay marriage said the case is now almost certainly headed to the Supreme Court.
Bowe-Shulman said she and her wife pay about $100 more in taxes each month because she is taxed as part of her wife’s health insurance.
“The harm that DOMA has done hasn’t been so apparent to the general public,” she said.
In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit found that the 1996 law deprives gay couples of the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples.
The court did not rule on another provision of the law that says states without same-sex marriage cannot be forced to recognize gay unions performed in states where it is legal. The court also was not asked to address whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.
The law was passed 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 it, led by Massachusetts in 2004 and continuing with Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington state and the District of Columbia. Maryland and Washington’s laws are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.
The 1st Circuit agreed with U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro, who concluded that the law interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and unconstitutionally denies gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual 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 and the other by state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
“For me, it’s more just about having equality and not having a system of first- and second-class marriages,” said plaintiff Jonathan Knight, a financial associate at Harvard Medical School who married Marlin Nabors in 2006.
“We can do better, as a country, than that,” said Knight, who estimates that the law costs the couple an extra $1,000 a year.
Opponents of gay marriage criticized the decision.
“This ruling that a state can mandate to the federal government the definition of marriage for the sake of receiving federal benefits, we find really bizarre, rather arrogant, if I may say so,” said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.