NEW YORK — A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples.
In striking down DOMA, the court held that government discrimination against lesbians and gay men now is assumed to be unconstitutional and that DOMA’s defenders could not offer any good reason for treating married same-sex couples differently from all other married couples.
This is the first federal appeals court decision to decide that government discrimination against gay people gets a more exacting level of judicial review, known as “heightened scrutiny.”
The law had been challenged by Edith Windsor, who sued the federal government for failing to recognize her marriage to her partner Thea Spyer, after Spyer’s death in 2009. Windsor and Spyer, who were a couple for 44 years, were married in Canada in 2007, and were considered married by their home state of New York.
“This law violated the fundamental American principle of fairness that we all cherish,” said Windsor. “I know Thea would have been so proud to see how far we have come in our fight to be treated with dignity.”
In her lawsuit, Windsor argued that DOMA violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution because it requires the government to treat same-sex couples who are legally married as strangers.
Windsor’s lawsuit was filed by the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“Today’s ruling is another step towards ending an unjust, unconstitutional and un-American piece of legislation. Next stop, Supreme Court. Politicians and judges have no business telling anyone who they can love and who they can marry,” said Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the Courage Campaign, in a statement Thursday.
“Today’s ruling is yet another step in this country’s movement towards equality. We applaud the ruling and will continue to work every day until efforts to legally discriminate, like DOMA and Prop 8, have been fully defeated,” he said.
“House Speaker John Boehner has wasted nearly a million and a half taxpayer dollars on defending this indefensible law,” said Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way, in a statement.
“I am confident that the Supreme Court would not let DOMA stand, but I hope that they never have to review it. Most Americans don’t want to hurt their gay and lesbian neighbors, and we’ve seen over and over again that DOMA does real harm to real people. Congress must recognize the harm that DOMA has done and repeal it before it hurts more legally married Americans,” said Keegan.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up DOMA – as well as California’s Proposition 8, which barred same-sex marriage in the state – this term.