The First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, Thursday determining that the portion of the federal act at issue was unconstitutional, according to CNN.

DOMA, enacted in 1996, defines marriage for the purposes of federal law as unions exclusively between a man and a woman.

The issue before the Fist Circuit was whether the federal government can deny tax, health and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where homosexual marriage is legal.

The court's decision to allow legally married homosexuals the same access to federal benefits as heterosexual couples  is a step in the right direction for gay rights advocates everywhere.

"If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress' will, this statute fails that test," said the three judge panel.

However, the First Circuit, based in Boston, did not rule on DOMA's other key provision that does not require states that do not allow same-sex marriages to recognize such legal unions performed in other states.

Accordingly, recognizing gay marriage is still a question for state legislatures. Currently Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and the District of Columbia all recognize same-sex marriages.

Additionally, both the Washington state and Maryland legislatures have passed same-sex marriage laws, which are soon  to go into effect, but could be delayed by impending opponent initiatives on the November ballot.

Other states such as New Jersey,Illinois, Delaware, Rhode Island and Hawaii have taken a smaller step by legalizing domestic partnerships or civil unions. These legally recognized relationships  provide much of the same rights as marriage under state law, yet do not recognize same-sex marriages.

Then there are states on the other end of the spectrum that have passed laws or state constitutional amendments banning such marriages outright.

"Many Americans believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and most Americans live in states where that is the law today," said Judge Michael Boudin, who authored the Circuit Court's opinion.

"One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage. Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress' denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest," he added.

Chief Judge Sandra Lynch, a Clinton nominee, and Judge Juan Torruella, a Reagan nominee, joined Bouldin's opinion.

Because the ruling only benefits those states that recognize same-sex marriages covered by the First Circuit such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts the decision currently has limited applicability.

Thus, there will be no immediate eligibility for financial benefits currently denied same-sex married couples until the Supreme Court makes a decision regarding this contentious matter.

Nonetheless, this decision is another step in the right direction for gay rights advocates everywhere.

What do you think?