A federal appeals court in New York has upheld a lower court's ruling which found unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law which bans federal agencies from recognizing the legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

Eighty-three-year-old Edith Windsor sued the federal government after she received an estate bill of more than $360,000 resulting from the death of her wife Thea Spyer. Windsor's lawyers argued that DOMA violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution.

The House of Representatives, at the direction of Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, stepped in to defend the law after the Obama administration declined to do so, saying it believes the law is unconstitutional.

Lawyer Paul Clement argued that gay men and lesbians, as a group, have political clout and, unlike African-Americans and women, have never faced “structural impediments” such as being denied the right to vote.

The court disagreed, saying that it believes “review of Section 3 of DOMA requires heightened scrutiny” and that gay people “have historically endured persecution and discrimination.” “The class remains a politically weakened minority,” the court opined.

Windsor and Spyer shared their lives for 44 years and married in Toronto, Canada in 2007. In 2009, New York began recognizing the marriages of gay couples, although gay couples could not enter such unions in the Empire State until last year. Spyer died in 2009.

In an unusual move, Windsor asked the Supreme Court to review her case before the appeals court had issued its ruling.

Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry, the nation's largest advocate for marriage equality, cheered the news.

“Today's ruling is the second by a federal appellate court and the tenth ruling in a row from judges appointed by presidents from Nixon to Reagan to George W. Bush, all agreeing that this disgraceful and discriminatory gay exception to the way the federal government treats married couples must end,” Wolfson said in a statement. “The Supreme Court should swiftly agree to hear one or more of these cases and definitively strike down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, removing this harsh, unfair and unconstitutional burden from families, businesses, the military, and others who want to treat all married couples as what they are: married.”

The decision comes a day after House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, criticized the $1.5 million spent on defending the law.