An appeals court ruled Thursday that the part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples is unconstitutional.
Congress did not provide "adequate rationale" for denying federal benefits to same-sex couples who are recognized as married under their state law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit wrote in its decision.
"Several of the reasons given do not match the statute and several others are diminished by specific holdings in Supreme Court decisions more or less directly on point. If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress' will, this statute fails that test," the court wrote.
Opposing the ruling, Alliance Defense Fund Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt said the court went too far in its rationale.
"In allowing one state to hold the federal government, and potentially other states, hostage to redefine marriage, the 1st Circuit attempts a bridge too far. Under this rationale, if just one state decided to accept polygamy, the federal government and perhaps other states would be forced to accept it, too," he contended.
DOMA became law in 1996 before any state allowed same-sex couples to get married. The law has two main parts. First, states would not have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states if they deny same-sex marriage to their own residents. Second, same-sex marriages would not be recognized under federal law. The Boston-based appeals court left the first part of the law intact and struck down the second part.
The appeals court noted that the law had strong bipartisan support when it was passed, and that courts should generally show deference to Congress.
"Invalidating a federal statute is an unwelcome responsibility for federal judges; the elected Congress speaks for the entire nation, its judgment and good faith being entitled to utmost respect."
But, the court said, it "must follow its best understanding of governing precedent," and rely upon the Supreme Court to "correct mis-readings."
The appeals court noted a strong deference to maintaining tradition in previous Supreme Court decisions, but also greater scrutiny of laws impacting the interests of minority groups.
"For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute. This judicial deference has a distinguished lineage, including such figures as Justice Holmes, the second Justice Harlan, and Judges Learned Hand and Henry Friendly. 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."
The case included several plaintiffs, including several same-sex married couples. Another plaintiff was Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). Coakley and GLAD sued the federal government in 2009, arguing that DOMA unfairly interferes with Massachusetts' ability to provide benefits to its citizens. In particular, the suit cited a state health care program and veterans' cemeteries.
"Today's landmark ruling makes clear once again that DOMA is a discriminatory law for which there is no justification. It is unconstitutional for the federal government to create a system of first- and second-class marriages, and it does harm to families in Massachusetts every day. All Massachusetts couples should be afforded the same rights and protections under the law, and we hope that this decision will be the final step toward ensuring that equality for all," Coakley said in a statement.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, argued Thursday that the ruling is "bizarre" for requiring the federal government to accept Massachusetts' definition of marriage, and violates the federal government's right to determine the application of federal benefits.
"For a Massachusetts-based court to just audaciously proclaim that the federal government is wrong and has to recognize a unique social experiment in Massachusetts for the purpose of providing benefits is bizarre and a violation of the principles of our federalist system," Mineau said, according to Reuters.
President Barack Obama announced last year that his Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court. The law's defense is now being provided by a legal advisory group appointed by House Republicans.
Obama announced earlier this month that he now supports same-sex marriage but also supports allowing each state to decide the issue.
The decision will not go into effect right away. The appeals court noted that a Supreme Court review of DOMA is "highly likely," so it stayed the decision.