A federal judge in Connecticut has ruled that parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples, are unconstitutional.

In a 104-page decision issued on July 31, District Judge Vanessa Bryant said the law, known as DOMA, violates the 14th Amendment right to equal protection.

“Section 3 of DOMA obligates the federal government to single out a certain category of marriages as excluded from federal recognition, thereby resulting in an inconsistent distribution of federal marital benefits,” Bryant wrote in Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management, 10-cv-01750. She also noted that “many courts have concluded that homosexuals have suffered a long and significant history of purposeful discrimination.”

Section 3 of the law provides that “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

The ruling came in the case of six married same-sex couples and a widower from Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont who sued after being denied federal benefits, including recognition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the federal tax code, Social Security death benefits and the New Hampshire Retirement System’s contribution to Medicare Insurance.

The decision follows a similar ruling by Southern District Judge Barbara Jones (NYLJ, June 7). In late May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston also ruled the law unconstitutional. And in early July, the Obama administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the legal fights over the Defense of Marriage Act.

On Feb. 23, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the president had instructed the Justice Department not to defend the constitutionality of Section 3 in the Connecticut and New York cases (NYLJ, Feb. 24, 2011).

Congressional leaders then hired former Solicitor General Paul Clement and the Bancroft law firm to defend the law against equal-protection challenges.

The Connecticut plaintiffs were represented by the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which won the Connecticut Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage in 2008.

Gay and lesbian advocates applauded the July 31 ruling, but they expected an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Clement already has filed a notice to appeal the Southern District of New York ruling in the circuit.

Mary Bonauto commented in a written statement: “Judge Bryant’s ruling is very clear; married people are married and should be treated as such by the federal government… There is no legitimate basis for DOMA’s broad disrespect of the marriages of same-sex couples.”

Plaintiffs Joanne Pedersen and Ann Meitzen have been married in Connecticut since 2008 and have been together 12 years. Pedersen is a retired civilian employee of the Office of Naval Intelligence who is enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. According to the decision, she was told her wife was not eligible as a spouse because she is of the same sex.

“I’m thrilled that the court ruled that our marriage commitment should be respected by the federal government just as it is in our home state of Connecticut,” Pedersen said in a statement.

Another plaintiff, Connecticut widower Gerald Passaro II, was denied a Social Security lump-sum death benefit when his spouse, Thomas Buckholz, died in 2009. The Social Security Administration said Passaro’s claim “did not meet the requirements under Federal law.”

A third Connecticut couple, Suzanne Artis and Geraldine Artis, married since 2009, are raising three children together. They were not allowed to file with the Internal Revenue Service as “married filing jointly” because, the IRS said, “for federal tax purposes, a marriage means only a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife.”

In the New York case, Thea Spyer left all of her property to Edith Windsor, including the apartment they shared. The women were married in Canada in 2007. Spyer’s estate normally would have passed to her spouse without any estate tax. But since DOMA prevents recognition of same-sex marriages, Windsor was assessed more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes.