Today the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, upholding a lower court’s decision. This is the second federal appeals court to rule the law unconstitutional because it violates the Fifth Amendment, equal protection under the law. However, this is the first ruling to go a step further. The court today found that DOMA should be subject to heightened scrutiny because the LGBT community has a history of being discriminated against and should therefore be entitled to a heightened level of protection from the courts. In the majority opinion Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote, “homosexuals are not in a position to adequately protect themselves from the discriminatory wishes of the majoritarian public.”

James Esseks, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said this ruling is “a watershed moment in the legal movement for lesbian and gay rights.”

DOMA defines marriage as between one man and one woman and denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages, as well as the legal benefits attached to marriage, including Social Security survivors’ benefits, family and medical leave, and immigration rights. The lawsuit in this case was filed on behalf of 83-year-old Edith Windsor by the American Civil Liberties Union. Windsor and her wife Thea Clara Spyer were engaged in 1967 and married in 2007 in Toronto, Canada. Spyer died in 2009 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, leaving her property to Windsor. Because of DOMA, their marriage was not recognized by federal law and Windsor was asked to pay over $363,000 in federal estate taxes.

In a statement released after the ruling was announced, Windsor praised the court’s decision, saying: “This law violated the fundamental American principle of fairness that we all cherish. I know Thea would have been so proud to see how far we have come in our fight to be treated with dignity.”

DOMA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. In February, the Obama Administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA in court on the grounds that it considers the law a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Since then, the law has been defended by a group appointed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. A total of seven federal courts, including two federal appeals courts and five federal courts, have now ruled DOMA unconstitutional; and several cases challenging the law are up for consideration by the Supreme Court of the United States. They are expected to make a decision about whether or not to take up a case addressing marriage equality in the term that began this month. Same-sex marriage is currently legal in six states, and will be on the ballot in four states (Maryland, Washington, Maine, and Minnesota) on November 6th.

Media Resources: AP 10/18/12; Reuters 10/18/12; Washington Blade 10/18/12; CNN 10/18/12