NEW YORK – The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. In a 2-to-1 decision, it struck down the bill signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Judge Dennis Jacobs ruled that the section of the law that defined the word "spouse" when referring to a man or woman's partner cannot be limited only to a member of the opposite sex, and should include same-sex couples as well. He said that the "classification of same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest" and thus violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution, The Associated Press reported.
Last month, attorneys argued the case of New Yorker Edith Windsor, who determined she should get the same federal rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to her marriage to her female partner, Thea Spyer, who died in 2009.
"The Defense of Marriage act discriminates against gay people," Windsor argued outside the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in September. "Not only is it illegal, as my lawyers argued today, but it refutes, it really challenges the basic principles on which this country was founded: fairness and equality."
Windsor has been demanding that she should not have to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes, because she and Spyer were legally married in 2007 in Toronto, Canada.
Former Solicitor General Paul Clement, arguing in defense of DOMA, however, insisted that the federal benefits related to marriage need to be preserved as they are, and states should have to hold a democratic process to decide whether to legalize gay marriage or not.
Same-sex marriage was legalized in New York in July 2011, which is one of seven U.S. states to allow for the practice.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has taken up Windsor's case, called Judge Jacobs' decision "a watershed moment in the legal movement for lesbian and gay rights."
James Esseks, an attorney for the Union, said:
"It's fabulous news for same-sex couples in New York and other states." He added that it was very important that the 2nd Circuit court recognized that when the government affirms the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman, the courts will call it discrimination and therefore unconstitutional.
One of the judges who voted against the majority opinion, Judge Chester Straub, said that the government and the courts should not be changing the definition of marriage, and that should be a matter for the people to decide.
"Courts should not intervene where there is a robust political debate because doing so poisons the political well, imposing a destructive anti-majoritarian constitutional ruling on a vigorous debate," Straub commented.
The issue is expected to reach all the way up to the Supreme Court next year.