June 1, 2012

Federal Court Of Appeals Rules That DOMA Is Unconstitutional

The First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals has ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Sitting in Boston, the 3 Judge panel voted 3-0 that the 1996 law denies same-sex couples federal benefits that are extended to straight couples, like filing joint tax returns.

ACLU of Massachusetts Legal Director Matthew Segal wrote an excellent blog post examining the decision, at boston.com. He wrote:

A federal appeals court in Boston ruled today in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it denies married same-sex couples the same federal benefits available to opposite-sex married couples. The unanimous 3-0 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit represents the first time a federal appeals court has struck down DOMA. This is wonderful news--particularly for same-sex couples married in Massachusetts--because it rules that all married couples must receive the same federal benefits regardless of sexual orientation.

Although Gill is the first decision of its kind, its reasoning is painstakingly narrow. Rather than make sweeping statements about the rights of gay people, the opinion relies on the quite accurate observation that Congress's rationales for passing DOMA don't make much sense. For example, lawyers defending DOMA--including appellate litigation superstar Paul Clement--had argued that DOMA protected traditional marriage and supported child-rearing between opposite-sex couples. A more liberal court might accurately have rejected those arguments on the ground that they rely on prejudice, rather than evidence. But the First Circuit's decision did not go there.

Instead, the court simply pointed out that, in states like Massachusetts, DOMA does not actually stop married same-sex couples from raising children. So even if discouraging same-sex parenting were a good idea--though it isn't--DOMA would not help. Similarly, the court noted that DOMA does not provide any benefit to opposite-sex couples. Thus, rather than complain about discrimination against gay men and lesbians, the court ruled that DOMA cannot survive because it does not do anything for heterosexuals.

The court's matter-of-fact reasoning will advance equal rights for all citizens precisely because it is so, well, mundane. If the court had said that DOMA is immoral, its decision could more easily have been branded as taking one side in America's culture wars. But because the court relied only on the absence of a logical fit between DOMA's aims and its operation, it is hard to imagine that other appellate courts will disagree with the decision, or that the Supreme Court will reverse it.

Reaction to the decision was typical. The Sun Chronicle reports:

Kris Mineau, president of Massachusetts Family Institute, said the Supreme Court would overturn the decision because it fails to recognize the historic definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman and the role marriage plays in procreation and raising children.

"This court has the audacity to hold the federal government hostage and force all Americans to recognize a radical social experiment from Massachusetts. This is a denigration of our federalist system and its time-tested reliability," Mineau said.

Conservatives said they hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the appeals court and find the law constitutional. "Society should protect and strengthen marriage, not undermine it. The federal Defense of Marriage Act provides that type of protection, and we trust the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the 1st Circuit's erroneous decision," said Dale Schowengerdt of the Alliance Defense Fund.

But, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, another advocate of gay rights, said he agreed with the court.

"I applaud the appeals court ruling for reaffirming what we in Massachusetts have known for some time now - same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and protections under the constitution as all other families," he said.

"Anything less is discriminatory and runs counter to the values of equality and opportunity we hold dear in this country."

The court ruling was limited to federal benefits for same-sex couples. It did not address whether state bans on gay marriage were constitutional.



It looks like the big showdown in the Supreme Court will happen sooner rather than later, and experts say that in 2013 the Court will most likely entertain oral arguments.

This decision is a great way to start LGBT Pride month!


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