A Massachusetts appeals court heard from lawyers challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, on Wednesday.
A lawyer for gay married couples argued before the three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, saying that any law that prohibits them from receiving the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples get should be struck down as unconstitutional.
A federal district court in Massachusetts ruled in July 2010 that a key section of the law was unconstitutional in lawsuits filed by Attorney General Martha Coakley and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). Judge Joseph Tauro declared the law unconstitutional saying it hinders the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples several federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples.
The court in Boston heard the appeal by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, convened by House Speaker John Boehner. President Barack Obama announced last year that the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA.
Paul Clement, a lawyer for the group, defended the law by saying Congress had a rational basis for passing DOMA in 1996, The Huffington Post reported. At the time, it appeared Hawaii would become the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage and opponents were concerned that other states would be required to recognize such marriages.
Clement said Congress wanted to define marriage uniformly and not stray from its traditional meaning. He also argued that Congress has the right to define the terms used in federal statutes to distribute federal benefits, according to the Post.
"This is not in any way an effort to override the states' own definition" of marriage, Clement said.
However, lawyers challenging DOMA argued that the power to define and regulate marriage had been left to the states for more than 200 years before Congress passed the act. They said the law puts same-sex couples into a separate but unequal class of marriage, the Post reported.
"It is simply that, frankly, Congress just didn't want to deal with same-sex couples," said Mary Bonauto, an attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). "This is across-the-board disrespect."
Assistant Attorney General Maura Healey said DOMA is "really a rule of exclusion" and forces states such as Massachusetts that recognize gay marriage to have two classifications of marriage, one for heterosexual couples and one for gay couples, according to The Huffington Post.
The Family Research Council, in conjunction with the Thomas More Society, filed a friend of the court brief supporting DOMA's constitutionality. In the brief, they argue:
"[T]he district court stated that even if Congress believed, at the time it enacted DOMA, that 'children had the best chance of success if raised jointly by their biological mothers and fathers, a desire to encourage heterosexual couples to procreate and rear their own children more responsibly would not provide a rational basis for denying federal recognition to same-sex marriages.' This, the court explained, is because '[s]uch denial does nothing to promote stability in heterosexual parenting.' This 'explanation' betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relevant constitutional analysis.
"Contrary to the district court's understanding, the issue is not whether denying federal recognition of same-sex marriages 'promote[s] stability in heterosexual parenting,' but whether granting such recognition would promote that interest. Clearly, it would not. Under the rational basis standard of review, that is sufficient to sustain the constitutionality of [section 3] of DOMA."
The First Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to make its ruling within the next few months.
While Obama does not want to defend DOMA, he has declared that his personal views on gay marriage are still evolving and has not taken a clear stand on the issue. However, there is now pressure on the president to support it, a decision he would like to avoid until after the presidential election.