By DENISE LAVOIE
The Associated Press
BOSTON — The federal law banning gay marriage is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define the institution and therefore denies married gay couples some federal benefits, a federal judge ruled Thursday in Boston.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro ruled in favor of gay couples’ rights in two separate challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, a 1996 law that the Obama administration has argued for repealing. The rulings apply to Massachusetts but could have broader implications if they’re upheld on appeal.

The state had argued the law denied benefits such as Medicaid to gay married couples in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions have been legal since 2004.

Tauro agreed and said the act forces Massachusetts to discriminate against its own citizens in order to be eligible for federal funding in federal-state partnerships.

The act “plainly encroaches” upon the right of the state to determine marriage, Tauro said in his ruling on a lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Martha Coakley. In a ruling in a separate case filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Tauro ruled 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.

Nancy Gill, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by GLAD, said she is “thrilled.”

Gill and Marcelle Letourneau married in Massachusetts in 2004 after being together for more than 20 years.

When Gill, a U.S. postal worker, tried to add Letourneau to her family health plan, she was denied. The couple were forced to get separate insurance for Letourneau, who has a medical transcription business at home.
Letourneau called the rulings “life-changing.”

“I can get on Nancy’s insurance,” she said. “That’s just a huge victory, and it gives us peace of mind.”

The couple were represented by a team led by Portland attorney Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director at GLAD, who has made history over the past two decades with her work as the lead lawyer in court cases that opened the door for same-sex marriage in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Justice Department had argued the federal government had 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.

Bonauto said during a May interview that she expected the case to be appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which also includes Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, no matter which side prevailed.

Opponents of gay marriage said they believe the rulings will be overturned on appeal.

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, called Tauro’s ruling “judicial activism” and said Tauro was a “rogue judge.”

The law was enacted by Congress in 1996 when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage and opponents worried that other states would be forced to recognize such marriages. The lawsuit challenged only the portion of the law preventing the federal government from giving pension and other benefits to same-sex couples.

Boston College professor Kent Greenfield, a constitutional law expert, said the rulings could have a legal impact outside Massachusetts if affirmed  on appeal to a court with broader jurisdiction.

“One thing that’s going to be really interesting to watch is whether the Obama administration appeals or not,” he said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department is reviewing the decision.