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Gay marriage law heads to appeals court in Massachusetts

BOSTON — A legal battle over a law that denies federal benefits to married gay couples is headed to a federal appeals court in Massachusetts, the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act, enacted by Congress in 1996, defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

A federal judge in Massachusetts declared a key section of the law unconstitutional in 2010 after Attorney General Martha Coakley and the legal group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders sued. Judge Joseph Tauro found that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state 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.

An appeal by a bipartisan congressional group in both cases will be heard Wednesday by the federal appeals court in Boston.

DOMA, as the law is known, was enacted when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage and opponents worried that other states would be forced to recognize such marriages. Since the national law was passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have approved gay marriage: Connecticut, New York, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland and Washington as well as the District of Columbia. Maryland and Washington's laws are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.

In Massachusetts' lawsuit, Coakley argued that the law violates the U.S. Constitution by interfering with the state's right to make its own marriage laws and forces the state to violate the constitutional rights of its residents by treating married gay couples differently than other married couples.