HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Part of a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman and denies tax, health and other benefits to married gay couples is unconstitutional, a judge in Connecticut ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant in Hartford issued a 104-page decision saying the provision in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act violates the Fifth Amendment right to equal protection.
The provision "obligates the federal government to single out a certain category of marriages as excluded from federal recognition, thereby resulting in an inconsistent distribution of federal marital benefits," Bryant wrote.
Bryant also noted that "many courts have concluded that homosexuals have suffered a long and significant history of purposeful discrimination."
The ruling came in the case of six married same-sex couples and a widower from Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont who sued after being denied federal benefits, including recognition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the federal tax code, Social Security death benefits and the New Hampshire Retirement System's contribution to Medicare Insurance.
Several federal judges across the country have issued similar rulings. In late May, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston also ruled the law unconstitutional. And in early July, the Obama administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the legal fights over the Defense of Marriage Act.
Gay and lesbian advocates applauded Tuesday's ruling, but they expected an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.
"I'm thrilled that the court ruled that our marriage commitment should be respected by the federal government just as it is in our home state of Connecticut," Joanne Pedersen, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement after the ruling was released.
Pedersen and her spouse, Ann Meitzen, of Waterford, Conn., were married under Connecticut's gay marriage law in December 2008. Pedersen, a retired civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, is enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and tried to get Meitzen covered under the plan, but her request was denied. Meitzen has a chronic lung condition that affects her ability to work and wants to retire, but she can't because of the cost of her health insurance, Bryant's ruling said.
"I loved working for the Navy for many years, and now that I am retired I now just want to care for my wife and make sure we can enjoy some happy and healthy years together," Pedersen said. "DOMA has prevented us from doing that."
Pedersen, Meitzen and the other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in November 2010 against the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and several federal officials.
Lawyers with the Connecticut U.S. attorney's office and the U.S. Justice Department, who represented the defendants, didn't immediately return messages Tuesday.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Raquel Ardin and Lynda DeForge of North Hartland, Vt., Janet Geller and Joanna Marquis of Goffstown, N.H., Bradley Kleinerman and James Gehre of Avon, Conn., Damon Savoy and John Weiss of Danbury, Conn., and Gerald Passaro of Milford, Conn.
The Obama administration has said it agrees with lower court rulings saying the law is unconstitutional, but it wants the review by the U.S. Supreme Court because President Barack Obama has instructed federal agencies to enforce the law's ban on federal benefits to married gay couples until there is a final court ruling.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, or GLAD, represented the plaintiffs.
"Judge Bryant's ruling is very clear: married people are married and should be treated as such by the federal government," Mary Bonauto, GLAD's civil rights project director, said in a statement. "There is no legitimate basis for DOMA's broad disrespect of the marriages of same-sex couples."
Sheryl Rapee-Adams, chairwoman of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, said repealing the law would be in line with the U.S. Constitution.
"Until DOMA is struck down, Vermonters married to partners of the same gender live in a state with equality, but in a federal legal landscape that bars them from hundreds of protections and rights for their families that heterosexual couples are entitled to," she said.
Associated Press writer Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this story.
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