In another positive step toward equality for all, a federal appeals court last week declared the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman unconstitutional. The court reasonably concluded the Defense of Marriage Act discriminates against married same-sex couples by denying them the same benefits heterosexual couples receive. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely take up the issue next year, and it should affirm that a nation committed to freedom and equality cannot continue to treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens.
The federal appeals court in Boston did not overturn the law entirely and only dealt with the issue of federal benefits. Under current law, same-sex couples can't jointly file federal taxes, receive certain Medicaid and Social Security benefits or sponsor a spouse for immigration, among other things. The Supreme Court will have the ultimate say on this portion of the act, which was passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
In the 16 years since, public opinion has evolved into a more enlightened position. President Barack Obama has long stood against the act, and he instructed the Justice Department in 2011 to stop defending it in court. Last month, Obama said he supports the rights of same-sex couples to marry, a stirring and historic show of support for the nation's gay community. The announcement came the day after North Carolina became the 30th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Florida passed a similar amendment in 2008. But despite the states' efforts, the national trend is clear. A Gallup poll taken in May showed that a majority of Americans believe gay marriage should be recognized by the law.
The Defense of Marriage Act is one barrier that should fall. Two judges in California have declared it unconstitutional, with the 9th Circuit of the Court of Appeals slated to take up the issue later this year. Meanwhile, domestic partner registries, which afford certain rights otherwise prohibited by law to domestic partners, have been popping up around the country — including in Tampa, Clearwater and Gulfport. St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are also considering domestic registries.
Equal benefits should become the law of the land. The 1st Circuit's ruling has given that opportunity to the Supreme Court. Same-sex couples should have the same basic rights to federal benefits as other couples.