Appeals Court Rules Parts Of DOMA Unconstitutional

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On Thursday, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston became the highest court in the country to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, saying that denying federal benefits to gay couples is unconstitutional.

In their unanimous decision the three-judge panel wrote, "only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case."

The case began when seven same-sex couples and three widowers in Massachusetts sued the federal government because they were deprived of federal benefits under DOMA, such as the right to receive survivor benefits from Social Security, or file federal taxes jointly.

In the five years that Jonathan Knight, of Hyde Park, has been married to Marlin Nabors, the couple has paid nearly $3,000 more in federal taxes than if they had been able to file jointly.

"We know that our relationship is full of the same kind of hopes, struggles and dynamics as all other married couples," Knight said. "So we're thrilled to learn that the law's on the same page now and that we fall into the same class as everyone else. We're no longer second-class citizens."

But Knight and his husband will have to continue filing federal taxes separately. The appeals court has stayed the effect of its decision until the Supreme Court takes up the case, which it is expected to do in its next term.

"What the court found is that essentially, there is no adequate justification in law for treating already married, same-sex couples differently from all other married couples when they're in identical circumstances," said Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. Bonauto represents Knight and the other Massachusetts plaintiffs.

Attorney General Martha Coakley also filed suit to strike down DOMA, arguing that it tramples states' rights to define marriage.

"We believe that this is a great day for Massachusetts, for civil rights, and for all same-sex couples in Massachusetts who are married or who will be," Coakley said.

The Obama administration won't defend DOMA, so the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives hired attorney Paul Clement to defend the law. Clement was also the main attorney challenging the national health care law at the Supreme Court. He did not return requests for comment on the DOMA case. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also defended the law and said Thursday they were still trying to figure out how to respond to the decision.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute and a longtime opponent of gay marriage, says he's not surprised by the decision.

"All the courts in Massachusetts seem to have subscribed to Judge Margaret Marshall's redefinition of marriage, [separating] marriage from the procreation of children and their nurturing," Mineau said.

As chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court when it recognized same-sex marriage in 2003, Marshall wrote the decision that made Massachusetts the first in the country to legalize gay marriage. Seven other states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit. The decision by the appeals court applies only to those states that recognize same-sex marriage.

This program aired on June 1, 2012.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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