Eight gay married couples and three surviving spouses from Massachusetts are suing the federal government for benefits being denied under DOMA. They claim the federal DOMA discriminates against gay couples and is unconstitutional.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the Boston-based gay rights advocacy group at the center of the gay marriage debate in New England, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the families in a Boston federal court today.

In 2003, GLAD successfully sued Massachusetts to become the first state to offer gay marriage. It duplicated that success last year in Connecticut. Only Massachusetts and Connecticut offer full marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Several other states, including New York, Vermont and New Jersey, are considering extending marriage to gay couples.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton. It defines marriage as a heterosexual union for the purposes of federal agencies. It also allows states to ignore legal gay marriages performed in another state.

Mary Bonauto, chief litigator at GLAD, said the suit would focus narrowly on several key provisions of DOMA: Social Security, federal income tax, federal employees and retirees, and the issuance of passports.

All the plaintiffs were married in Massachusetts and have been denied benefits because the federal government does not recognize their marriage. Including Dean Hara, the widower of former U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress, who was denied the Congressman's pension and other benefits extended to surviving spouses.

“It hurts,” said Hara, who married Studds in May 2004. “But at the same time I realize that I, as a man, need to stand up for what I believe in. This is a nation of laws, and we're all supposed to have equal treatment under the law.”

Victory would not extend marriage beyond the borders of Massachusetts and Connecticut but would send a powerful signal to other states currently debating gay marriage.

“We've got this major federal statute that inflicts really substantial harm on very large numbers of gay people just for being gay,” Andrew Koppelman, a Northwestern University law professor, told the Boston Globe. “The federal government declares to these people that it regards their marriages as worthless and would not give those marriages the protection and recognition that it gives to all other marriages. It's quite significant if that is invalidated.”

President Barack Obama has said he believes DOMA should be repealed. And its author, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, recently wrote “It truly is time to get the federal government out of the marriage business” in calling for repeal.

GLAD said it believed the lawsuit would reach the Supreme Court.

On the Net: GLAD is at www.glad.org