Massachusetts sued Wednesday to repeal the federal law defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman. It's the first lawsuit of its kind — from the first state to legalize gay marriage.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley said the Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA (text of the law), unfairly excludes the more than 16,000 same-sex couples married in Massachusetts from the federal rights and programs afforded to heterosexual couples. The 1996 law gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The U.S. Justice Department said the suit has President Obama's support. "The president supports legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act because it prevents LGBT couples from being granted equal rights and benefits," said Justice spokesman Charles Miller.
The suit (PDF), filed in federal court in Boston, argues the law violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment because it forces Massachusetts to treat same-sex couples differently from other couples.
"In enacting DOMA, Congress overstepped its authority, undermined states' efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people," the lawsuit states.
Further, Coakley argues DOMA infringes on the state's rights.
"We believe that DOMA directly interferes with Massachusetts' long-standing sovereign authority to define and regulate the marital status of its residents," Coakley said.
If Coakley's challenge is successful, the five other states that have legalized same-sex marriage — Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Iowa-- will also not have to enforce DOMA.
Supporters of gay marriage praised the lawsuit. "This is a very bold move by the attorney general," said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "It shows a lot of leadership on her part, a lot of creativity and a lot of commitment both to the gay community — equality for us — and to the state — fighting for the state and the state’s right to set its own laws."
Opponents of gay marriage say only lawmakers or the people, not the courts, can change the definition of marriage.
Coakley identified 1,100 federal provisions that are affected by DOMA, including that:
- same-sex couples can’t file a joint federal tax return, which would save them money;
- they are not eligible for Social Security survivor benefits;
- they can’t be guaranteed leave from work to care for a sick spouse;
- a veteran's same-sex spouse cannot be laid to rest next to a partner in Massachusetts cemetaries.
Coakley said discrimination against gay couples is causing the state to lose an unspecified amount of money and creates unnecessary paperwork by forcing officials to maintain a system of first- and second-class marriages.
In March, the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed the first serious challenge to DOMA on behalf of 15 gay Massachusetts residents. The Massachusetts suit is likely to get more attention since it comes from a state attorney general.
This program aired on July 8, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.