In a case brought to court by an 83-year-old widow, a judge in New York City has ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, as a key component of the federal law denies benefits to partners in same-sex marriages. This is the fifth such decision against DOMA, meant to protect traditional marriage, since it was enacted in 1996.
This latest setback to DOMA supporters concerns Edith Windsor, who married Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007. When Spyer passed away in 2009, Windsor failed to qualify for the IRS provision called the unlimited marital deduction, and had to pay $363,053 in federal taxes on Spyer's estate. She sued the government in Nov. 2011.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones ruled Wednesday that DOMA's efforts to define marriage "intrude upon the states' business of regulating domestic relations." Jones explained that DOMA fails because it tries to re-examine states' decisions concerning same-sex marriage, Reuters reported.
The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives, which was representing the government in the case, said that the federal government should have the right to intervene and defend traditional marriage.
"While it is true that regulating the details of traditional marriage historically has been left to the states, it also is true that the federal government has been involved with and injected itself into marriage law when states have deviated from the traditional definition. Thus, for instance, the United States Congress banned polygamy in United States territories when faced with widespread plural marriage in the Utah Territory," wrote attorney Paul D. Clement on the group's behalf.
Celebrating the court's ruling, Windsor stated, "It's thrilling to have a court finally recognize how unfair it is for the government to have treated us as though we were strangers."
The decision means that Windsor will be reimbursed for the money she paid in taxes. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has spoken out in favor of repealing DOMA, praised the ruling by Jones, saying that it "adds to what has become an avalanche of decisions that DOMA can't survive even the lowest level of scrutiny by the courts."
It is "another example of the trend of the judiciary continuing to see that treating same-sex couples differently than their heterosexual counterparts is not only wrong but goes against the laws of equality and justice here in the United States," added Brian Silva, executive director of Marriage Equality USA.
DOMA previously has been declared unconstitutional four times by federal judges. The act, signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 before states began legalizing same-sex marriage, is a federal law that defines marriage as between one man and a woman. President Barack Obama in 2011 called DOMA unconstitutional and announced that the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court.
In a response to Obama's decision, Peal Benjamin Linton, Special Counsel of for nonprofit public interest law firm The Thomas More Society, issued a lengthy letter arguing why the act should be upheld.
"[…] both state and federal courts have recognized that two of the legitimate interests for which the institution of marriage (and its benefits) exists and is protected by law are providing a stable social and familial environment in which procreation – intended or unintended – may take place, and providing the benefits of dual- gender parenting for the children so procreated, interests expressly identified in the House Report accompanying the Defense of Marriage Act. Same-sex unions promote neither interest," he wrote.
"The President is supposed to defend federal laws, and lapsing from that duty could come back to haunt those who support the President's actions with DOMA – the Department of Justice is part of the Executive branch and is supposed to defend federal laws," added Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence.