An appeals court ruling declaring the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional increases the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take the case.

The 2-to-1 ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York is the first to apply heightened scrutiny to the unions of gay and lesbian couples.

The New York Times reported that the distinction increases its chances of review before the Supreme Court.

The decision in Windsor v. United States is the second by a federal appeals court to strike down the 1996 law which bars federal agencies from recognizing the legal marriages of gay couples.

In an unusual move, the case's plaintiff, Edith Windsor, asked the high court to review her case before the appeals court had issued its ruling.

“It's an incredible moment in the struggle for gay rights in this country,” Jame D. Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's project on LGBT issues, told the Times.

In its decision, the court said 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, 83, 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 women 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.

At a press conference on Thursday, Windsor said she was “thrilled” by the decision, adding that she found it “so offensive that his woman that I lived with and adored, and had loved me, that they treated her as if she was a stranger in my life.”

Spyer, she said, “would have been so proud to see how far we've come.”