A federal judge in Boston has ruled the U.S. gay marriage ban unconstitutional. For now, same-sex couples in Massachusetts have the same rights under federal law as heterosexual couples.
The ban in question is the Defense Of Marriage Act, which became law in 1996 during the height of the cultural wars. For federal purposes like income tax, veterans' benefits, immigration and a slew of other programs, that law defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.
In the two cases decided in Massachusetts Thursday, lawyers argued that marriage has always been the province of the state.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro agreed, and ruled the federal law unconstitutional.
While dramatic, the ruling has its limitations, according to Boston College Law School Professor Kent Greenfield.
"There's a range of differential benefits from Social Security to Medicare to other health benefits that you are entitled to if you are married...This decision should change that."Attorney General Martha Coakley
"A district court in Massachusetts, when it makes a constitutional holding, it has no authority outside of its district," Greenfield said.
"Other courts will look at this opinion and whether it's persuasive they will start including its reasoning in its own opinions," Greenfield continued. "But it only has the weight a court chooses to give for it."
Still, for now, the ruling will affect this state. "Now in Massachusetts, until it's appealed or until it's overturned, it's the law of Massachusetts," Greenfield said.
But just what that means isn't entirely clear.
Will same-sex couples be able to be buried in the same veteran's cemetery plot? Will they be able to file jointly on their federal income taxes?
Attorney General Martha Coakley, who filed one of the two lawsuits decided Thursday, says they will.
"There's a range of differential benefits from Social Security to Medicare to other health benefits that you are entitled to if you are married, filing your income tax that the federal government has just not recognized, because it has the restrictive definition of marriage," Coakley said. "This decision should change that."
Critics of the ruling, like Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, say it's an example of judicial overreach.
"Any time it's put to a referendum to the people, to whom the definition of marriage belongs — not to the courts or to the legislature — they vote resoundingly for a marriage to be defined solely as the union of one man and one woman."
Mineau says opponents of same-sex marriage should take their fight to their elected representatives. He doesn't believe there's any recourse in the legal system.
"This case exactly flips everybody's intuition and everybody's ideology."Prof. Kent Greenfield
Still, the decision essentially leaves the ball in the court of the U.S. attorney general's office, which will decide whether or not to appeal.
The Obama administration holds two competing opinions. During arguments in the case, the U.S. Department of Justice's lawyer repeatedly said the administration opposes DOMA but thinks the law is constitutional.
So far, the Justice Department says it's reviewing the case. If it appeals, that could bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This case exactly flips everybody's intuition and everybody's ideology," Greenfield said. "The liberals will say, 'No, state's rights. Massachusetts has a right to define marriage.' The conservatives will say, 'No, federal government power has a right to say which federal government benefits go to what kind of married couple.' "
Greenfield says he'll be fascinated to see how a gay marriage case plays out in the Supreme Court — if it gets that far.
This program aired on July 9, 2010.