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By David G. Savage
Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)
WASHINGTON--Gay-rights advocates won another victory in their fight for equal treatment under law Thursday, when the U.S. appeals court in New York struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and held for the first time that gays and lesbians are a minority group deserving of special protection from discrimination under the Constitution.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan joined a growing number of federal judges in New England and California who have ruled that the U.S. government may not deny equal federal benefits to legally married gay couples.
But in its opinion Thursday, the 2nd Circuit broke new ground, becoming the first to decide that official discrimination against gays and lesbians is like discrimination against women or racial minorities and generally forbidden by law.
"Homosexuals have suffered a history of discrimination," said Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs for a 2-1 majority. And while gays have been winning political victories, he said they are still subject to many discriminatory laws. Jacobs said courts should view all laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation with the same skepticism accorded to laws that discriminate based on gender.
Jacobs, who has a generally conservative reputation, was appointed to the court by former President George H.W. Bush. He was joined by Judge Christopher Droney, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton. In dissent, Judge Chester Straub, a Ronald Reagan appointee, said judges should not change the traditional definition of marriage. If it is to be changed, "I believe it is for the American people to do so," he wrote.
The judges ruled in the case of Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old widow, who had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes after the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer, because under federal law they were not legally married. The two met in New York's Greenwich Village in the 1960s and were together for 44 years. They were married in Canada and lived in New York, one of six states where same-sex marriage is legal.
"Edie and Thea's home state of New York has long respected the marriages of same-sex couples and explicitly supports the freedom to marry," said Mariko Hirose, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It is only right that the federal government respect the state's decision and treat all married couples fairly."