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NEW YORK -- A federal appeals court in New York ruled Thursday that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples.

"Homosexuals are not in a position to adequately protect themselves from the discriminatory wishes of the majoritarian public," Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote for the 2-1 majority.

"Even if preserving tradition were in itself an important goal, DOMA is not a means to achieve it," he said.

Judge Chester Straub dissented, arguing that the federal definition of marriage should be left to the political process.

"If this understanding is to be changed, I believe it is for the American people to do so," he wrote.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is now the second federal appeals court to reject part of the law. The decision upheld a lower court ruling that had found a central part of the law unconstitutional.

Appeals in several cases are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could choose to take up the issue in its current term.

"Next stop, Supreme Court," said Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign. "Politicians and judges have no business telling anyone who they can love and who they can marry."

Two members of the three-judge panel ruled in favor of Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old woman who argued that the 1996 law discriminates against gay couples in violation of the Constitution.

Six states have legalized same-sex marriage, including New York in 2011. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, federal law and government programs do not recognize those marriages.

Windsor had to pay $363,000 in federal taxes after inheriting property from Thea Spyer, to whom she was married under New York law. The IRS stated the marriage was not recognized at the federal level and imposed the estate tax.

"Given her age and health, we are eager for Ms. Windsor to get a refund of the unconstitutional tax she was forced to pay as soon as possible," Robert Kaplan, her legal counsel, said in a statement.

"This law violated the fundamental American principle of fairness that we all cherish," Windsor added. "I know Thea would have been so proud to see how far we have come in our fight to be treated with dignity."

The Obama administration said last year it considered the law unconstitutional and would no longer defend it. Instead, a group appointed by the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is defending the law in courts across the country.

The appeals court rejected the group's arguments that the law was necessary to maintain a uniform definition of marriage, that it served the government's interest of saving money and that it was necessary to encourage procreation.

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