Appeals court strikes down DOMA: Tradition doesn't justify unequal treatment

A three-judge panel from the federal appeals court in Boston unanimously ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional for denying federal benefits to 'same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts.'

Gerry Broome/AP
Katie Mae Stewart of Greensboro holds a sign during a rally in Greensboro, N.C., May 9.

The federal appeals court in Boston struck down the Defense of Marriage Act on Thursday, ruling that the federal statute violates the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian married couples to equal treatment under the law.

The action by a unanimous three-judge panel of the First US Circuit Court of Appeals sets the stage for a much-anticipated showdown at the US Supreme Court over same-sex marriage.

Declaring that tradition alone was not enough to justify disparate treatment of same-sex couples, the appeals court said DOMA failed to pass constitutional muster.

“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,” Circuit Judge Michael Boudin wrote for the court in a 28-page decision.

Joining the decision were Chief Judge Sandra Lynch and Judge Juan Torruella.

The decision comes three weeks after President Obama announced his support of gay marriage. The Justice Department had initially worked to defend DOMA against the Massachusetts-based legal challenges, but last year announced it would no longer argue for the statute’s constitutionality.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have passed laws recognizing same-sex marriages. More than 30 other states have passed statutes or state constitutional amendments restricting the definition of marriage to between a man and a woman.

The 1996 federal statute seeks to bolster those state efforts to limit the definition of marriage. DOMA defines marriage in an effort to set eligibility for more than 1,100 federal benefits. By declaring that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, Congress intentionally excluded same-sex married couples from receiving the same level of benefits as heterosexual married couples.

For example: gay spouses are barred under DOMA from filing joint tax returns; a surviving spouse in a same-sex marriage may not collect Social Security survivor benefits; and federal employees may not share their government-provided health insurance with a same-sex spouse.

The appeals court noted that federal lawmakers sought to justify DOMA as a means to defend and nurture traditional, heterosexual marriage. The lawmakers also said they wanted to defend traditional notions of morality, and to preserve scarce government resources.

But the court pushed such justifications aside, saying that the offered rationales do not provide adequate support for DOMA.

“DOMA does not … explain how denying benefits to same-sex couples will reinforce heterosexual marriage,” Judge Boudin wrote.

“This is not merely a matter of poor fit of remedy to perceived problem, but a lack of any demonstrated connection between DOMA’s treatment of same-sex couples and its asserted goal of strengthening the bonds and benefits to society of heterosexual marriage,” the judge said.

In terms of morality, the judge cited the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision striking down a Texas sodomy law. “Moral disapproval alone cannot justify legislation discriminating on this basis,” Boudin said.

The decision encompasses three different cases consolidated for the appeal. They include: Gill v. OPM (10-2207), Massachusetts v. US Department of HHS (10-2204), and Hara v. OPM (10-2214). The court heard oral argument in early April to examine a July 2010 ruling by a federal judge in Boston who also declared DOMA unconstitutional.

“In reaching our judgment, we do not rely upon the charge that DOMA’s hidden but dominant purpose was hostility to homosexuality,” Boudin wrote. “The many legislators who supported DOMA acted from a variety of motives, one central and expressed aim being to preserve the heritage of marriage as traditionally defined over centuries of Western civilization.”

Preserving the institution was not the same as “mere moral disapproval of an excluded group,” the judge said.

“For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute,” Boudin said. “But Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.”

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