Two new lawsuits challenge the federal
government's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
DOMA is the 1996 federal law that
prohibits federal agencies from recognizing the legal marriages of
gay and lesbian couples.
The Boston-based legal group Gay and
Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is representing five married
gay couples and a widower who have been denied federal benefits
because of DOMA. GLAD's lawsuit expands geographically an earlier
lawsuit filed in Massachusetts, in
which a federal judge ruled a section of the law to be
Obama administration is appealing the decision.
The new suit, filed in Federal District
Court in Connecticut, includes plaintiffs married in Vermont, New
Hampshire and Connecticut, expanding the number of states potentially
impacted by the ruling. In a short video embedded in the right panel
of this page, Mary L. Bonauto of GLAD introduces the plaintiffs.
In the second lawsuit, the American
Civil Liberties Union is representing a lesbian couple together for
44 years. New Yorkers Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer married in Canada
in May 2007. But when Spyer passed away in 2009 after living for
decades with multiple sclerosis, the federal government refused to
recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a $350,000 estate
tax on Spyer's inheritance.
While gay and lesbian couples cannot
legally marry in the Empire State, New York does recognize the
marriages of gay couples performed outside its borders, and whether a
couple is married for federal purposes ordinarily depends on how the
state views the union. DOMA, however, carves out an exception to
this rule for gay couples. And whether a state recognizes a gay
couple as married or not, the federal government will not.
Both cases narrowly target section 3 of
DOMA, which defines marriage as a heterosexual union for federal
agencies. The law also allows states to ignore legal gay marriages
performed in other states.
While President Barack Obama has called
for repeal of the Clinton-era law, his administration has not made it
a priority, and neither has Congress. Obama
has said he opposes laws that ban gay marriage, specifically
California's voter-approved Proposition 8, but he backs civil unions,
not marriage, for gay couples. The
president, however, recently suggested his position is “evolving.”
Five states and the District of
Columbia have legalized gay marriage. But such laws have been
aggressively attacked. After legalization in California and Maine,
voters repealed the laws. Campaigns to end the institution are
actively being pursued in New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of