Continued from page 1

Last year, President Barack Obama announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of the law. After that, House Speaker John Boehner convened the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to defend it. The legal group argued the case before the appeals court.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the appeals court ruling is “in concert with the president’s views.” Obama, who once opposed gay marriage, declared his unequivocal personal support in recent weeks. Carney wouldn’t say whether the government would actively seek to have the law overturned if the case goes before the Supreme Court.

“I can’t predict what the next steps will be in handling cases of this nature,” Carney said.

The 1st Circuit said its ruling would not be enforced until the Supreme Court decides the case, meaning that same-sex married couples will not be eligible to receive the economic benefits denied by the law until the high court rules. Only the Supreme Court has the final say in deciding whether a law passed by Congress is unconstitutional.

Until Congress passed the law, “the power to define marriage had always been left to individual states,” the appeals court said in its ruling.

“One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage,” Judge Michael Boudin wrote for the court. “Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress’ denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.”

Several times in its ruling, the appeals court noted that the case will probably end up before the high court, at one point saying, “only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.”

Paul Clement, a Washington, D.C., attorney who defended the law on behalf of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, argued that Congress had a rational basis for passing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, when opponents worried that states would be forced to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere.

The group said Congress wanted to preserve a traditional and uniform definition of marriage and has the power to define terms used to federal statutes to distribute federal benefits.

“But we have always been clear we expect this matter ultimately to be decided by the Supreme Court, and that has not changed,” he said in a statement.

Two of the three judges who decided the case Thursday were Republican appointees, while the other was a Democratic appointee.

In California, two federal judges have found this year that the law violates the due-process rights of legally married same-sex couples.

In the most recent case, a judge found the law unconstitutional because it denies long-term health insurance benefits to legal spouses of state employees and retirees. The judge also said a section of the federal tax code that makes the domestic partners of state workers ineligible for long-term care insurance violates the civil rights of people in gay and lesbian relationships.

Associated Press writers Jay Lindsay and Shannon Young contributed to this report.