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U.S. Judge Faults Congress in Denying Same-Sex Marriage

Martha Coakley Crop

In a strongly worded ruling, the Defense of Marriage Act falls in federal court to a combined challenge by GLAD and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Gay rights activists cheered Federal District Judge Joseph Tauro’s ruling last Thursday, July 8, striking down the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. Judge Tauro’s decision is a strong and definitive rejection of federal interference with state power to recognize same-sex marriage.

The Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley successfully challenged the federal government’s position in Boston in a two-pronged attack on Section 3 of DOMA, that defines marriage only as a condition that exists between a man and woman for all federal purposes.

In GLAD’s case, Gill v. Office of Personnel, Judge Tauro determined that DOMA forced the state of Massachusetts to discriminate against its own citizens by denying them federal benefits, in violation of the equal protection clause. In Coakley’s challenge, Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, the judge concluded that Section 3 usurps states’ rights over marriage, violating the 10th Amendment, which gives power to state governments.

“This court has determined that it is clearly within the authority of the Commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages among its residents, and to afford those individuals in same-sex marriages any benefits, rights, and privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of their marital status,” Tauro wrote in his opinion. “The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state.”

Citing history to validate his view, Tauro wrote of the federal government’s hands-off approach to the debates surrounding interracial marriage: “The federal government consistently yielded to marital status determinations established by the states,” Tauro wrote, suggesting that the federal government act accordingly in the case of same-sex marriage.

GLAD attorney Mary BonautoGLAD attorney Mary Bonauto, who successfully argued the 2003 Supreme Judicial Court case that first legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, contended simply that DOMA constitutes a “classic equal protection” violation. It takes “one class of married people in the Commonwealth and divides it into two,” she claimed. Heterosexual married couples are given benefits while same-sex couples are denied them.

The Department of Justice argued that the federal government has the authority to set requirements on eligibility for federal funds, but Tauro wasn’t swayed. “The Constitution ’neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,’” Tauro wrote, citing the rejected 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld segregation to further strengthen his argument.

Tauro’s opinion was passionate—beyond finding DOMA unconstitutional, he flatly discredited Congress’s intent in making the law. “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 will not permit.”

DOMA was passed in 1996 under President Clinton and defined marriage as an act between a man and a woman. At the time, no state had legalized same-sex marriage, but it was expected that Hawaii and other states would soon move to legalize it. The Republican-controlled Congress overwhelmingly supported the bill in both houses—claiming that the law was aimed at protecting heterosexual marriage and encouraging responsible procreation. President Barack Obama ran for office with the promise of a full repeal of DOMA, but the Justice Department has since defended the law.

While gay rights activists celebrate Judge Tauro’s decision, opponents of same sex marriage condemn the ruling and wait anxiously for an appeal. Kris Mineau, the president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute told the Boston Globe that Tauro’s decisions were a “blatant example of a judge playing legislator.” He is “confident that an appeals court, and ultimately the Supreme Court, will uphold the government’s right to define marriage, strengthening and protecting children and families.”

The federal government will likely appeal the case to the First Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. GLAD lawyers expect a decision from this court in 2012.

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