Marriage-equality advocates scored a victory when U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro in Boston struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 federal law signed by President Bill Clinton banning the recognition of same-sex marriage by the federal government, as unconstitutional. “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.
Now marriage-equality groups are bracing for a battle if the U.S. Department of Justice appeals. Justice Department spokesperson Tracy Schmaler said the administration was “reviewing the decision” and had not yet determined whether or not to pursue a defense of the law in court, reports ABC News.
But according to Politico.com, “lawyers on various sides of the issue said it was a certainty that the government will appeal and likely that the cases will reach the Supreme Court.”
The decision to appeal should come within the next 60 days, explained GLAD, which argued Gill et al v. Office of Personnel Management et al., one of two separate legal challenges that led to Tauro’s ruling.
Tauro found that Section 3 of DOMA, which states that only a marriage between one man and one woman will be recognized for federal purposes, “plainly encroaches” states’ rights to determine their own definition of marriage and award benefits of federal-state programs such as Medicaid.
“The Court simply affirmed that our country won’t tolerate second-class marriages,” said Mary Bonauto, GLAD‘s civil-rights project director, of the case brought by seven married same-sex couples and three widowers last year who had been denied federal rights and benefits. That case was then followed by a separate suit filed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
One of the lawsuit plaintiffs is Dean Hara, former spouse of late and first openly gay national politician Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass. “The couple married in 2004, following the Massachusetts court ruling allowing same-sex marriage. Studds died in 2006. Hara is seeking the federal health benefits normally accorded to the spouses of deceased federal employees,” reports Politico.com.
Although Tauro’s ruling currently applies only to Massachusetts, it may well impact other states if state attorneys challenge the law.
All Eyes on Obama
Gay-rights groups are encouraging Obama to follow through on his campaign promise to repeal DOMA. “While we expect the [Justice] Department to continue to defend DOMA on appeal,” states the Human Rights Campaign, “we urge the Obama administration to push Congress to repeal a law that we know, and Judge Tauro recognized, serves no purpose but to denigrate our families.”
What will happen if the ruling is not overturned? “The federal government will have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states that recognize such marriages, eliminating yet another discriminatory barrier,” stated Rick Jacobs, chair of the Courage Campaign. The California marriage-equality organization began circulating an e-mail petition last week encouraging Obama to direct the Justice Department to not appeal Tauro’s ruling.
Not surprisingly, conservative groups disapprove of the ruling. Family Research Council Senior Vice President Tom McClusky referred to Tauro’s decision as “erroneous” in a statement issued last week. “This decision results from the deliberately weak legal defense of DOMA that was mounted on behalf of the government by the Obama administration, which has called for repeal of the law.”
Likewise, Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, called it “judicial activism,” reports The Associated Press.
Same-sex marriage is currently permitted in five states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire), as well as the District of Columbia.