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BOSTON (Reuters) - Eight same-sex couples who married in Massachusetts and three gay widowers filed a lawsuit on Tuesday seeking access to the federal protections and programs granted to straight married couples.
The lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Massachusetts marks the first major challenge to the constitutionality of a federal law denying gay and lesbian couples access to more than 1,000 federal programs and legal protections, gay advocates say.
The suit was brought by the same lawyers who led a successful campaign to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts in 2003, paving the way for the nation's first same-sex marriages a year later. They won a similar fight last year to make Connecticut the second U.S. state to allow gay marriage.
"As lawyers we look at this as one step at a time," said Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "This is really about how the federal government treats Massachusetts marriages."
The Massachusetts lawsuit comes two days before California's Supreme Court hears a challenge to a referendum that barred same-sex marriage in the nation's most populous state, sparking massive street protests.
More than 10,000 same-sex couples in Massachusetts have married since 2004. About a dozen other states are considering laws to legalize gay marriage.
The lawsuit challenges a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that was enacted in 1996 and defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman and prohibits federal recognition of gay marriage.
Others have challenged the law in the past, but the Massachusetts suit is the first by multiple parties.
The lawyers say the law violates a promise of equal protection contained in the U.S. Constitution by singling out one class of marriages "for disrespect."
In practice, that means even if a same-sex couple is married in a state like Massachusetts, they are denied access to a trove of benefits -- from health insurance benefits to retirement and death benefits for surviving spouses.
The state's attorney general, Martha Coakley, issued a statement supporting the suit.
The United States has at least 1,138 federal laws in which marital status is a factor, the lawyers said, citing government studies. These include a prohibition on married gay couples from filing joint tax returns.
The widowers include Dean Hara, the spouse of former U.S. Representative Gerry Studds, who died in 2006. Hara was denied Studds' Congressional pension and other benefits normally extended to surviving spouses of federal employees.
Opponents to the lawsuit said the Defense of Marriage Act protects children and families, and reflects mainstream opposition to gay marriage.
Forty-four states have laws explicitly prohibiting same-sex marriage, including 29 with constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman.
"Americans overwhelmingly believe marriage to be the union of one man and one woman," Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said in a written statement.
"Same-sex marriage activists simply cannot win a public vote, so they force their will upon the citizenry through select, activist judges."