SAN JOSE, Calif. — From California to Boston, the legal storm over gay marriage is moving swiftly and inexorably toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
A federal appeals court in Boston put yet another legal dent in the federal government's ban on same-sex marriage rights Thursday, saying the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it denies equal benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
The unanimous three-judge decision was the first federal appeals court ruling invalidating federal same-sex marriage restrictions and could wind up as the case that pushes the contentious gay marriage question to the Supreme Court this year.
With legal challenges to DOMA and state laws such as California's Proposition 8 unfolding across the nation, the Boston court made it clear that the Supreme Court must weigh in.
"Only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case," the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.
The ruling marks the latest blow in the courts to state and federal bans on same-sex marriage, and represents part of a fast-moving puzzle of cases that appears destined to force the Supreme Court to tackle the argument that gay and lesbian couples should have the same legal right to marry as heterosexual couples.
There are at least two California cases that are moving in a similar direction, and might reach the Supreme Court's docket as quickly as Thursday's decision out of the Massachussetts federal courts.
In Thursday's ruling, the 1st Circuit said the 1996 law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman discriminates against gay couples because it doesn't give them the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.
The three-judge panel was made up of two Republican appointees and one Democrat.
Legal experts were quick to point out that the court took a fairly narrow approach, finding that Congress did not have the authority to trample on the rights of states such as Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage and confer equal benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
One of the California cases may pose broader constitutional issues because it involves a state that outlaws same-sex nuptials.