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BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts sued the U.S. government on Wednesday to seek federal marriage benefits for about 16,000 gay and lesbian couples who have wed since the state became the nation's first to legalize same-sex marriage.
The state is challenging the constitutionality of the federal 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, saying it denies "essential rights and protections" to married gay couples.
The federal government is interfering with the state's "sovereign authority to define and regulate marriage," said the lawsuit filed in federal court in Boston. It calls the law "overreaching and discriminatory."
Others have challenged the law in the past but Massachusetts is the first state to do so. "We view all married persons equally and identically," Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley told a news conference.
The lawsuit is the latest skirmish over gay marriage in the U.S. federal court system after a handful of political filmmakers led by a Democratic consultant crafted a gay rights challenge in May that they hope will reach the Supreme Court.
It also follows a separate lawsuit filed by a group of married gay couples in Massachusetts in March that also challenged the same portion of the Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.
This year has seen a sharp expansion of laws legalizing gay marriage. In a single week in April, Iowa and Vermont joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in allowing gay couples to wed legally. Maine followed suit in May. New Hampshire did so a month later. And New York is considering a similar law.
But same-sex couples legally married in any of those states cannot access the federal protections and programs granted to straight married couples.
"It's a simple matter of fairness and equality. We have never had first and second-class marriages in this country. We should not start now," said Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a group of attorneys who argued the case that brought gay marriage to Massachusetts.
The Defense of Marriage Act denies married gay and lesbian couples access to more than 1,000 federal programs and legal protections, gay rights advocates say.
Coakley cited several items denied, including federal income tax credits, employment and retirement benefits, health insurance coverage and Social Security payments.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, dismissed the lawsuit as "frivolous" and urged federal courts to dismiss it to "preserve the right of the people to decide such important public policy decisions."
Before 1996, U.S. states had the right to define marital status under state sovereignty, the lawsuit said. Massachusetts wants the right to "define marriage within its own boundaries," it added, noting this would not affect other states.
"This is a good argument since the U.S. Supreme Court has many times stated that domestic relations are a matter of state sovereignty," wrote Boston University School of Law professor Linda McClain in an analysis of the lawsuit.
Editing by John O'Callaghan