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Federal judge rules ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ unconstitutional

Thursday, July 8, 2010
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Gay rights advocates scored a major victory in federal court Thursday, as a U.S. District Court judge in Boston struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that defines marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman.

Judge Joseph L. Tauro, ruling on two separate challenges to DOMA, held that the act is unconstitutional and forced the state of Massachusetts to discriminate against its own citizens.

Excerpts from Tauro’s rulings:

The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state, and in doing so, offends the Tenth Amendment. For that reason, the statute is invalid.

In the wake of DOMA, it is only sexual orientation that differentiates a married couple entitled to federal marriage- based benefits from one not so entitled. And this court can conceive of no way in which such a difference might be relevant to the provision of the benefits at issue.

Tauro

Importantly, the passage of DOMA marks the first time that the federal government has ever attempted to legislatively mandate a uniform federal definition of marriage–or any other core concept of domestic relations, for that matter.

Congress undertook this classification for the one purpose that lies entirely outside
of legislative bounds, to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves. And such a classification, the Constitution clearly will not permit.

Tauro noted that Congress laid out four reasons for the 1996 legislation: promoting “responsible procreation and child-bearing,” defending “traditional heterosexual marriage,” supporting “traditional notions of morality” and guarding limited federal resources.

Nancy Gill and her spouse, Marcelle Letourneau, celebrate a court victory. (Photo: GLAD.)

In the case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, Tauro found that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act violates the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In that suit, filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the Plaintiffs — seven same-sex couples married in Massachusetts, and three survivors of same-sex spouses, also married in Massachusetts — charged that they have been denied certain federal marriage-based benefits that are available to similarly-situated heterosexual couples, in violation of the equal protection principles embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto argued that DOMA constitutes a “classic equal protection” violation, by taking one class of married people in Massachusetts and dividing it into two — one class gets federal benefits, and the other does not.

In the companion ruling in the case of the Commonwealth v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, the judge held that the same section of DOMA violated the Tenth Amendment and fell outside Congress’ authority under the Spending Clause of the Constitution.

In the latter case, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, argued that DOMA denied benefits such as Medicaid to gay married couples in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions have been legal since 2004.

The Defense of Marriage Act was passed by Congress by a vote of 85-14 in the Senate and a vote of 342-67 in the House of Representatives, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996.

At the time of passage, it was expected that Hawaii (and possibly other states) would soon legalize same-sex marriage, whether by legislation or judicial interpretation of either the state or federal constitution. Gay marriage opponents feared that other states would then be required to recognize such marriages under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution.

To date, only Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. New York, Maryland, and the District of Columbia recognize such marriages from other jurisdictions.

The next step in both cases is for the federal government to decide whether it will appeal Judge Tauro’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. That decision should come within the next 60 days.

Read the rulings here:

Ruling in the case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management.
Ruling in the case of Commonwealth v. United States Department of Health and Human Services.

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