Massachusetts sues to overturn Defense of Marriage Act in federal court

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AG Martha CoakleyMassachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, is now the first state to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in federal court. The lawsuit, filed by Attorney General Martha Coakley, claims that DOMA “violates the United States Constitution by interfering with the Commonwealth’s sovereign authority to define and regulate the marital status of its residents.”

“In enacting DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], Congress overstepped its authority, undermined states’ efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people,” the state said in a lawsuit filed today in US District Court in Massachusetts.

The suit said that more than 16,000 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts since gay marriage became legal in the state in 2004 “and the security and stability of families has been strengthened in important ways throughout the state.”

“Despite these developments, same-sex couples in Massachusetts are still denied essential rights and protections because the federal Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] interferes with the Commonwealth’s authority to define and regulate marriage,” the lawsuit said.

Full press release below:

BOSTON – Today, Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit in United States District Court (D. Mass.) challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”).  The law, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, unfairly excludes more than 16,000 Massachusetts married same-sex couples and their families from critically important rights and protections based on marital status.  The complaint alleges that DOMA, which affects more than 1,100 federal statutory provisions, violates the United States Constitution by interfering with the Commonwealth’s sovereign authority to define and regulate the marital status of its residents.  The complaint also alleges that DOMA exceeds Congress’s authority under the Spending Clause because Congress does not have a valid reason for requiring Massachusetts to treat married same-sex couples differently from all other married couples.

“Today, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts takes an important step toward ensuring equality and fairness for its citizens and maintaining our authority as a sovereign state,” said Attorney General Coakley.  “DOMA affects residents of Massachusetts in very real and very negative ways by depriving access to important economic safety nets and other protections that couples count on when they marry and that help them to take care of one another and their families.  DOMA also directly and fundamentally interferes with Massachusetts’s right as a state sovereign to determine the marital status of its residents.”

The Commonwealth’s complaint alleges that Section 3 of DOMA unlawfully creates separate and unequal categories of married individuals in Massachusetts, due to the fact that only different-sex married couples are considered married under federal law.  Among other things, DOMA prohibits married individuals in same-sex relationships from taking advantage of the ability to file a joint federal tax return, Social Security survivor benefits, guaranteed leave from work to care for sick spouses, flexible spending accounts for medical expenses of spouses, and gift tax and estate tax exemptions for spouses.  These rights and protections affect all facets of life from the workplace to healthcare to retirement, and every married person is affected significantly by these laws.

The Attorney General’s Office further contends that Section 3 of DOMA unlawfully requires Massachusetts to disregard valid marriages in its implementation of federally funded programs.  The complaint focuses specifically on two programs, MassHealth and veterans’ cemeteries.

“It is unconstitutional for the federal government to discriminate, as it does because of DOMA’s restrictive definition of marriage.  It is also unconstitutional for the federal government to decide who is married and to create a system of first- and second-class marriages. The federal government cannot require states, such as Massachusetts, to further the discrimination through federal programs, either.  The time has come for this injustice to end.”

The complaint specifically highlights two programs in Massachusetts that are impacted by DOMA.  The two programs are MassHealth, the Commonwealth’s Medicaid program which offers healthcare coverage to low- and moderate-income residents of Massachusetts, and the burial of Massachusetts veterans and their spouses at cemeteries owned and operated by the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS).

The Attorney General’s Office is seeking an order that the federal government be prohibited from enforcing Section 3 of DOMA against Massachusetts. Additionally, it seeks a declaration that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to Massachusetts as well as MassHealth and DVS, is unconstitutional.

DOMA was enacted in 1996 in anticipation of the possibility that Hawaii might license marriages between same-sex couples.  Prior to the enactment of DOMA, the federal government honored the marriages recognized by the states for the purposes of any federal program or statute.  Section 3 of DOMA created, for the first time, a federal definition of marriage and, with it, a federal limitation on marriage.

In 2004, following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, Massachusetts became the first state to license marriages between individuals in same-sex relationships.  Since May 2004, more than 16,000 same-sex couples have been married in Massachusetts.

Currently, six states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire – permit, or will soon permit, qualified, committed same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses.  In addition, California continues to honor the marriage licenses that were extended to over 18,000 same-sex couples prior to the passage of Proposition 8.  Two other states, New York and Rhode Island, as well as the District of Columbia honor marriages between same-sex couples that are celebrated in Massachusetts.  Seven states – California, Nevada, Hawaii, New Jersey, Washington, Wisconsin and Oregon – recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions between same-sex couples.  Twenty-nine other states have enacted what are commonly called mini-DOMAs, which ban marriage between couples of the same sex.

This matter is being handled by Maura T. Healey, Chief of Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division, and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan B. Miller, also of Attorney General Coakley’s Civil Rights Division.

Post by ILO on 07/08/09 at 12:04 pm