NEW YORK - Saying the gay population has "suffered a history of discrimination," a federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled Thursday that a federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman was unconstitutional, adding fuel to an issue expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court soon.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its 2-to-1 decision only three weeks after hearing arguments on a lower court judge's findings that the 1996 law was unconstitutional.
In a majority opinion written by Judge Dennis Jacobs, the 2nd Circuit, like a federal appeals court in Boston before it, found no reason the Defense of Marriage Act could be used to deny benefits to married gay couples. It supported a lower court ruling after a woman sued the government in 2010, saying the law required her to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax after her partner of 44 years died.
Jacobs, though, went beyond the Boston court, saying discrimination against gays should be scrutinized by the courts in the same heightened way as discrimination faced by women was in the 1970s.
At the time, he noted, they faced widespread discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere. The heightened scrutiny, as it is referred to in legal circles, would mean government discrimination against gays would be assumed to be unconstitutional.
"The question is not whether homosexuals have achieved political successes over the years; they clearly have. The question is whether they have the strength to politically protect themselves from wrongful discrimination," said Jacobs, who was named to the bench in 1992 by George H.W. Bush.
He said it was difficult to say whether gays were underrepresented in positions of power and authority without knowing their true numbers.
"But it is safe to say that the seemingly small number of acknowledged homosexuals so situated is attributable either to a hostility that excludes them or to a hostility that keeps their sexual preference private - which, for our purposes, amounts to much the same thing," Jacobs said.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which filed arguments with the appeals court before the ruling, called the decision "yet another example of judicial activism and elite judges imposing their views on the American people."