The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Thursday has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, the federally imposed ban on same-sex marriage passed into law in 1996, saying the legislation grossly violates the equal protection clause found in the US Constitution's fourteenth amendment.
Under the law, which specifically defines marriage as between one man and one women, no state or local government is required to recognize a same-sex marriage from another state.
The specific suit decided, Windsor vs. United States, was brought by Edith Windsor who sued the federal government for failing to recognize her marriage to longtime partner Thea Spyer following 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.
“Yet again, a federal court has found that it is completely unfair to treat married same-sex couples as though they’re legal strangers,” said James Esseks, Director of the ACLU LGBT Project. “Edie and Thea were there for each other in sickness and in health like any other married couple, and it’s unfair for the government to disregard both their marriage and the life they built together and treat them like second-class citizens.”
“We are pleased that the federal circuit that represents three states that provide their gay and lesbian citizens with the right to marry affirmed the decision of the district court,” said Roberta Kaplan of Paul, Weiss, counsel to Ms. Windsor. “Given her age and health, we are eager for Ms. Windsor to get a refund of the unconstitutional tax she was forced to pay as soon as possible.”
Windsor has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case. The court has not yet decided whether to hear her case, or any of several other challenges to DOMA.
“Edie and Thea’s home state of New York has long respected the marriages of same-sex couples and explicitly supports the freedom to marry,” said Mariko Hirose, staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It is only right that the federal government respect the state’s decision and treat all married couples fairly.”
Ian Millhiser, at Think Progress, writes:
This is a Really. Big. Deal. Jacobs is not simply saying that DOMA imposes unique and unconstitutional burdens on gay couples, he is saying that any attempt by government to discriminate against gay people must have an “exceedingly persuasive” justification. This is the same very skeptical standard afforded to laws that discriminate against women. If Jacobs’ reasoning is adopted by the Supreme Court, it will be a sweeping victory for gay rights, likely causing state discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be virtually eliminated. And the fact that this decision came from such a conservative judge makes it all the more likely that DOMA will ultimately be struck down by the Supreme Court.
One unfortunate caveat is necessary: Judge Chester Straub, a Clinton-appointee, dissented. Nevertheless, this marks the second time that a prominent conservative court of appeals judge declared DOMA unconstitutional, and it relies on a sweeping rationale in doing so. Supporters of equality have a great deal to celebrate today.
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