Two new lawsuits challenge the federal government's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

DOMA is the 1996 federal law that prohibits federal agencies from recognizing the legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

The Boston-based legal group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is representing five married gay couples and a widower who have been denied federal benefits because of DOMA. GLAD's lawsuit expands geographically an earlier lawsuit filed in Massachusetts, in which a federal judge ruled a section of the law to be unconstitutional. The Obama administration is appealing the decision.

The new suit, filed in Federal District Court in Connecticut, includes plaintiffs married in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut, expanding the number of states potentially impacted by the ruling. In a short video embedded in the right panel of this page, Mary L. Bonauto of GLAD introduces the plaintiffs.

In the second lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union is representing a lesbian couple together for 44 years. New Yorkers Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer married in Canada in May 2007. But when Spyer passed away in 2009 after living for decades with multiple sclerosis, the federal government refused to recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a $350,000 estate tax on Spyer's inheritance.

While gay and lesbian couples cannot legally marry in the Empire State, New York does recognize the marriages of gay couples performed outside its borders, and whether a couple is married for federal purposes ordinarily depends on how the state views the union. DOMA, however, carves out an exception to this rule for gay couples. And whether a state recognizes a gay couple as married or not, the federal government will not.

Both cases narrowly target section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage as a heterosexual union for federal agencies. The law also allows states to ignore legal gay marriages performed in other states.

While President Barack Obama has called for repeal of the Clinton-era law, his administration has not made it a priority, and neither has Congress. Obama has said he opposes laws that ban gay marriage, specifically California's voter-approved Proposition 8, but he backs civil unions, not marriage, for gay couples. The president, however, recently suggested his position is “evolving.”

Five states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. But such laws have been aggressively attacked. After legalization in California and Maine, voters repealed the laws. Campaigns to end the institution are actively being pursued in New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia.