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Why a federal court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act

The First Circuit wrote that the federal Defense of Marriage Act intruded on states' rights and that the act's defenders failed to justify its impact on gay couples. But the court acknowledged that 'only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.'

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In its decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act on Thursday, the US appeals court in Boston acknowledged that the underlying legal precedents supporting its opinion are far from clear.

The appeals court nonetheless went ahead and did something no other federal appellate court has done. It ruled that same-sex married couples have a constitutional right to receive federal benefits on an equal basis to benefits received by opposite-sex spouses.

The decision represents another landmark in the struggle for gay rights in the US. But it is not clear – even to the deciding judges in Boston – how the US Supreme Court will ultimately view the case.

“Supreme Court precedent offers some help to each side, but the rationale in several cases is open to interpretation,” Judge Michael Boudin wrote in the 28-page decision.

“We have done our best to discern the direction of these precedents, but only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case,” he said.

Thursday’s decision by a unanimous three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit came in three consolidated cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

A powerful affirmation, or a bridge too far?

Gay rights advocates praised the decision, while those supporting the traditional definition of marriage denounced it.

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