Federal appeals court declares Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional
An appeals court ruled Thursday that the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies several federal benefits to gay married couples, is unconstitutional.
An appeals court ruled Thursday that the law that denies a host of federal benefits to gay married couples is unconstitutional.
In a unanimous ruling, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, discriminates against gay couples by denying them federal benefits.
The law was passed in 1996 at a time when it appeared Hawaii would legalize gay marriage. Since then, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have approved it, led by Massachusetts in 2004.
Last year, President Barack Obama decided the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of the law. Soon after, House Speaker John Boehner called for the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to defend it.
The 1st Circuit Court agreed with a lower court judge who ruled in 2010 that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including tax, health and pension benefits.
NPR reports that the three-judge panel noted that many Americans believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and most Americans live in states where that is the law today.
In its decision, the court wrote, "One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage. Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress' denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest."
According to The Washington Post, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the Boston-based legal group that brought one of the lawsuits on behalf of gay married couples, said the court agreed with the couples that it is unconstitutional because it takes one group of legally married people and treats them as “a different class” by making them ineligible for benefits given to other married couples.
“We’ve been working on this issue for so many years, and for the court to acknowledge that yes, same-sex couples are legally married, just as any other couple, is fantastic and extraordinary,” Lee Swislow, GLAD’s executive director told the Post.
The Post also reports that the court did not rule on the law’s other controversial provision, which said states without same-sex marriage cannot be forced to recognize gay unions performed in states where it’s legal. It was also not asked to rule on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.
The appeals court said its ruling would not be enforced until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case, meaning that same-sex married couples will not be eligible to receive the benefits denied by DOMA until the high court rules.