NEW YORK (CNN) -- A federal appeals court in New York became the nation's second to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, finding that the Clinton-era law's denial of federal benefits to married same-sex couples is unconstitutional.
The divisive act, which was passed in 1996, bars federal recognition of such marriages and says other states cannot be forced to recognize them.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined Thursday that the federal law violates the Constitution's equal protection clause, ruling in favor of a widow named Edith Windsor, an 82-year-old lesbian who sued the federal government for charging her more than $363,000 in estate taxes after being denied the benefit of spousal deductions.
"What I'm feeling is elated," said Windsor. "Did I ever think it could come to be, altogether? ... Not a chance in hell."
The case centered on the money Windsor wanted back, but raised the more looming question of whether the federal government can continue to ignore a state's recognition of her marriage and financially penalize her as a result.
"Homosexuals are not in a position to adequately protect themselves from the discriminatory wishes of the majoritarian public," wrote Dennis Jacobs, a conservative judge in New York.
A federal appeals court in Boston made a similar ruling in May, but the moves are considered largely symbolic as the issue is expected to eventually be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This court has a limited jurisdiction," CNN legal analyst Paul Callan said. "But this is a very favorable decision for those who believe that the Defense of Marriage (Act) unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples."
Those who back striking down the law "believe this decision will give them a very strong position arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in the future," he said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also weighed in on the three-judge-panel's decision, saying it "provides further momentum for national progress on this important civil rights issue."
In February, the Obama administration ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the law, though a GOP-backed group has since taken up the issue in courts across the country.
Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Maryland, Washington, Maine and Minnesota are voting on the issue in November referendums.
Five states -- Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- currently allow civil unions that provide rights similar to marriage.
CNN's Greg Botelho and Mark Norman contributed to this report.