Federal Ruling Weakens Defense of Marriage Act | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Federal Ruling Weakens Defense of Marriage Act


Published July 9, 2010 at 9:42 a.m.

A federal judge in Massachusetts Wednesday handed a major victory to Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) opponents, ruling that parts of the infamous law are unconstitutional.

Enacted in 1996 during the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, DOMA amended federal law to define marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman.

The case was brought to federal court by seven married same-sex couples and three widowers from Massachusetts. Under the ruling, the plaintiffs are entitled to the same federal spousal benefits and protections as heterosexual married couples.

Judge Joseph L. Tauro sided with the plaintiffs. He reasoned that DOMA does not truly provide nationwide consistency when it comes to defining marriage because not all states define heterosexual marriage equally. For example, a 13-year-old girl can marry a 14-year-old boy in New Hampshire, he noted. He also added that prior to 1996 no state had granted marriage to same-sex couples, therefore he questioned the rationale behind the law's intent to preserve the "status quo" and address what Congress deemed "social problems."

"The only 'problem' that the government suggests DOMA might address is that of state-to-state inconsistencies in the distribution of federal marriage-based benefits," wrote Tauro in his ruling. "But the classification that DOMA effects does not bear any rational relationship to this asserted interest in consistency. Decidedly, DOMA does not provide for nationwide consistency in the distribution of federal benefits among married couples. Rather it denies to same-sex married couples the federal marriage-based benefits that similarly situated heterosexual couples enjoy."

The Massachusetts cases were argued by Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director for the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD).

Along with two Vermont lawyers — Beth Robinson and Susan Murray — Bonauto helped argue the Baker v. State case before the Vermont Supreme Court. The court's ruling in that case prompted Vermont's legislature to adopt civil unions.

"We're thrilled," wrote Bonauto in an email to Seven Days. "Judge [Joseph] Tauro ruled for the married couples and surviving spouses in our case on equal protection grounds. The decision says that there is no legitimate basis for the federal government to deny gay people the protections and responsibilities that come with marriage under federal law. No doubt there will be an appeal, but the ruling gives us hope that the day will come when gay people are no longer deprived of the safety net of federal protections available to other married people."

Back in April, Bonauto talked to Seven Days about the multi-pronged legal and legislative strategies in play nationally to forward the civil rights of gays and lesbians. "We can't afford to have one approach or leave it to one branch of government and talk about the underlying issues facing gays and lesbians," she said at the time.

The court heard oral arguments in the case back in May. Unlike the same-sex marriage case in California challenging Proposition 8, which argues that same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected, the Massachusetts case rested on the simple premise that federal law cannot discriminate among married people. Bonauto's clients are married in Massachusetts but are not afforded certain federal benefits and rights because of DOMA, including retiree and income tax benefits.

"By inserting that one definition, it changed 1138 laws without a lot of thought, and we think that's unconstitutional and [there is] no justification for it," said Bonauto.

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