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Feds appeal Mass. rulings against federal gay marriage ban

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The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday defended the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman by appealing two rulings in Massachusetts by a judge who called the law unconstitutional for denying federal benefits to gay married couples.

In two separate cases, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro in July ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, is unconstitutional because it interferes with a state’s right to define marriage and denies married gay couples an array of federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns.

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The notice of appeal filed Tuesday did not spell out any arguments in support of the law. The appeals eventually will be heard by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he would like to see the 1996 law repealed. But the Justice Department has defended the constitutionality of the law, which it is required to do.

“The Department of Justice has a long-standing practice of defending federal statutes when they are challenged in court, including by appealing adverse decisions of lower courts,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

Tauro’s rulings came in separate challenges: one filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and the other by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a Boston-based legal rights group that argued successfully to make Massachusetts the first state in the country to legalize gay marriage.

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“We fully expected an appeal and are more than ready to meet it head on,” said Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s civil rights project director. “DOMA brings harm to families like our plaintiffs every day, denying married couples and their children basic protections like health insurance, pensions and Social Security benefits. We are confident in the strength of our case.”

Coakley’s office had argued the law violates the U.S. Constitution by interfering with the state’s right to make its own marriage laws and forces Massachusetts to violate the constitutional rights of its residents by treating married gay couples differently than other married couples in order to receive federal funds for certain programs.

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Coakley said in a statement Tuesday that she was looking forward to making her case before the appeals court.

“DOMA is an unjust, unfair, and unconstitutional law that discriminates against Massachusetts married couples and their families,” Coakley said.

Opponents of gay marriage, citing the president’s support for repealing DOMA, have accused the Obama administration of failing to vigorously defend the law.

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During court hearings before Tauro, a Justice Department lawyer argued the federal government has the right to set eligibility requirements for federal benefits, including requiring that those benefits go only to couples in marriages between a man and a woman.

DOMA defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, prevents the federal government from recognizing gay marriages and allows states to deny recognition of same-sex unions performed elsewhere. Since the law passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans, while five states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.

In his ruling, Tauro said the law forces Massachusetts to discriminate against its own citizens to be eligible for federal funding in federal-state partnerships.

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In a ruling in GLAD’s case, Tauro said the act violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“Congress undertook this classification for the one purpose that lies entirely outside of legislative bounds, to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves. And such a classification the Constitution clearly will not permit,” Tauro wrote.

The rulings apply only to Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004. But gay marriage supporters are hoping the rulings could prompt other states to file their own challenges to DOMA and could also give momentum to a movement to repeal the law.

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