President Obama's Department of Justice
has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that calls the federal
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, Reuters
DOMA, which was signed by President
Bill Clinton 13 years ago on Monday, defines marriage as a
heterosexual union for the federal government and allows states to
ignore legal gay marriages performed in another state.
In Gill v. Office of Personnel
Management, the Boston-based gay rights group Gay & Lesbian
Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) is representing seven married gay
couples and three surviving spouses who claim the law discriminates
against gay couples.
On the campaign trail Obama called the
law “abhorrent” but he has since said he's obligated to defend
shift angered gay rights activists.
“In making this filing, the
department is bound by the only precedent that exists, which is that
no court has found such a right to federal benefits based upon
marital status to be constitutionally required,” said Justice
Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
GLAD lawyers argue that DOMA denies
plaintiffs, gay and lesbian couples legally married in Massachusetts,
access to federal benefits. Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in
2004, the first state to do so.
“This case is about seeking justice
for the widows and widowers who are being denied death benefits, for
people who can't get on their spouse's health plan, for parents who
can't file taxes jointly and pay thousands extra each year that they
could put away for their children's education or family emergencies,”
the group said in a statement.
Administration lawyers disagreed,
saying in their filing Friday, “No court has found such a right to
federal benefits to be fundamental – and the federal courts that
have considered the question in the context of DOMA itself have
rejected such a claim.”
The group has said it expects the
lawsuit to reach the Supreme Court. But a horse race to reach the
steps of the court is already underway. At least three federal cases
that challenge the law have been filed: Two in Massachusetts and one
in California. A
fourth case in California was recently dismissed due to a
technicality, but plaintiffs have vowed to press on.
Both Massachusetts cases target Section
3 of the law – the provision that denies federal benefits to gay
couples – limiting the impact of a successful ruling to states that
have legalized gay marriage. A strategy the Hill's most powerful
openly gay congressman, Barney Frank, has called “very smart.”
The challenge filed in a federal court
in San Francisco seeks to repeal the entire law. A favorable ruling
could affect the entire nation.
Lawmakers Tuesday introduced a bill
that would repeal portions of the law. But
New York Representative Jerrold Nadler's Respect
for Marriage Act of 2009
faces a steep incline.
Four New England states –
Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire – and Iowa
have granted gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. A gay
marriage law in Maine will be decided by voters in November. New
Hampshire's law begins on January 1. New York, New Jersey and the
District of Columbia are expected to consider similar legislation
before the end of the year.