A federal appeals court in Boston on Thursday got it right in declaring the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. Now the matter of same-sex marriage rights seems headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court should uphold the lower courts rulings and overturn this act. As the federal court declared, the 1996 law illegally discriminates against married same-sex couples.
Most of us didnt need the courts to tell us that. The discrimination in the law is blatant. With language defining marriage as being between a man and woman, the law denies married same-sex couples the benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. As the New York Times reported, those benefits range from the ability to file joint tax returns to the ability to collect Social Security survivors benefits.
But it is telling that a bipartisan appeals court panel came to same conclusion. On the panel were two Republican judges one appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the other appointed by President George H.W. Bush and one Democratic judge appointed by President Bill Clinton.
Ironically, one of the key reasons the judges offered for their rejection of DOMA act was that they were upholding a states right to insist on equal treatment for its married couples.
The appeals court action was prompted by a Massachusetts case. In 2003, the Massachusetts state high court became the first to declare that gays and lesbians had an equal right to marry. Seven same-sex couples who were married in Massachusetts later filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging as unconstitutional the part of the DOMA that denied them the same benefits as other married couples. The state of Massachusetts filed a similar suit, stressing this was a states-rights issue. A federal judge found in 2010 that the law violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. That decision was appealed to the 1st Circuit Court which issued Thursdays ruling.
The Justice Department, which had defended the law, changed course under the Obama administration. Officials said they would not defend the denial of equal federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The department then filed a brief urging the appeals court to strike down the federal-benefits provision of the legislation. The court did so on Thursday.
The ruling deals narrowly with benefits and does not address the issue of the legality of same-sex marriage itself. And it is that narrow benefits issue that the Supreme Court would take up if it decides to hear the case involving the constitutionality of DOMA. As law professor Jennifer Pizer noted, the ruling means that holding a traditional view of marriage, as proponents of the DOMA say was the impetus for the law, does not allow government to discriminate against gay couples.
That brings us to North Carolinas misguided vote last month to write into the states constitution a ban on same-sex marriage. N.C. already has a law against same-sex marriage, so a constitutional ban for that purpose was superfluous.
But lawmakers went further than just outlawing same-sex marriage. With language that declares marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state, the amendment jeopardizes the rights and benefits of unmarried gay and straight couples, including visitation rights and end-of-life arrangements. Some local officials are already considering prohibiting government benefits for same-sex couples that are provided to married heterosexual couples.
Such discrimination is wrong, and its good the federal appeals court has recognized that. The Supreme Court, when it hears the case, should concur.