The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston today declared that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, discriminates against married same-sex couples by denying them federal benefits. The court called the law, passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, unconstitutional.
The specific case under review by the 1st Circuit, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, was originally filed by GLAD on behalf of several married same-sex couples and widowers in Massachusetts in 2009. In 2010, a federal judge found that DOMA violated the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment. Today's decision upholds that ruling.
"Today's unanimous decision issued by the First Circuit Court of Appeals is a powerful affirmation that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is an unconstitutional and unjust law whose days are numbered," said Evan Wolfson, president of the marriage equality advocacy group Freedom to Marry. "This ruling will return the federal government to its historic role of respecting marriages performed in the states, without carving out a 'gay exception' that denies thousands of protections."
"The First Circuit has reached the inevitable conclusion on DOMA: the arguments for such a discriminatory, hurtful law just don't hold up." --Michael Keegan, PFAW
"As more loving same-sex couples commit their lives to one another in marriage, the harms of this unjust law become more clear," Wolfson said, "from service members, risking their lives to protect ours, being denied the ability to protect their own families through military medical insurance or survivor benefits to senior citizens."
Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way Foundation, also applauded the court's decision.
"The First Circuit has reached the inevitable conclusion on DOMA: the arguments for such a discriminatory, hurtful law just don't hold up," Keegan said. "Over 16 years, DOMA has denied thousands of legally married Americans the protections and responsibilities granted to all other married couples under federal law. DOMA marginalizes a group of Americans, declares them inferior, and denies them rights granted to all others."
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The court didn't rule on the law's other provision, which said states without same-sex marriage cannot be forced to recognize gay unions performed in other states.
During arguments before the court last month, a lawyer for gay married couples said the law amounts to "across-the-board disrespect." The couples argued that the power to define and regulate marriage had been left to the states for more than 200 years before Congress passed DOMA.
An attorney defending the law argued that Congress had a rational basis for passing it in 1996, when opponents worried that states would be forced to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. The group said Congress wanted to preserve a traditional and uniform definition of marriage and has the power to define terms used to federal statutes to distribute federal benefits.
Since DOMA was passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have approved it, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington state and the District of Columbia. Maryland and Washington's laws are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.
Last year, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of the law. After that, House Speaker John Boehner convened the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to defend it.