According to the Ventura County Star, the battle over the federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman is headed for the United States Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled last week that denying benefits to married gay couples is unconstitutional.

The three (3) judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, in a unanimous decision, declared that the 1996 law deprives gay couples of the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples.  Yet, the court failed to rule on the provision of law where states without same-sex marriage cannot be forced to recognize gay unions performed in states where it is legal.  The court was also not asked to address whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The 1996 law was passed at a time when it appeared Hawaii would legalize gay marriage.  Since then, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have approved the practice, led by Massachusetts in 2004.

The court, the first federal appeals panel to rule against the benefits section of the law, agreed with a lower court judge who in 2010 concluded that the law interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns.

Since Congress passed the law, eight states have approved gay marriage.  They include Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington state and the District of Columbia.  Maryland’s and Washington’s laws are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.

The 1st Circuit said its ruling would not be enforced until the Supreme Court decides the case, meaning that same-sex married couples will not be eligible to receive the economic benefits denied by the law until the high court rules.  That’s because the ruling only applies to states within the circuit – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire – and Puerto Rico.  Only the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say in deciding whether a law passed by Congress is unconstitutional.

Until Congress passed the law, “the power to define marriage had always been left to individual states,” the appeals court stated in its ruling.  Several times in its ruling, the appeals court noted that the case will probably end up before the high court, at one point saying, “only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.”

In California, two federal judges have found this year that the law violates the due-process rights of legally married same-sex couples.  In the most recent case, a judge found the law unconstitutional because it denies long-term health insurance benefits to legal spouses of state employees and retirees.  The judge also stated that a section of the federal tax code that makes the domestic partners of state workers ineligible for long-term care insurance violates the civil rights of people in gay and lesbian relationships.