Thursday, May 31, 2012

How Does Today's DOMA Ruling Affect Us?

Heh. What a nice Thursday morning surprise to wake up to!

An appeals court ruled Thursday that the heart of a law that denies a host of federal benefits to gay married couples is unconstitutional.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston said the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, discriminates against married same-sex couples by denying them federal benefits.

The law was passed in 1996 at a time when it appeared Hawaii would legalize gay marriage. Since then, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have approved it, led by Massachusetts in 2004.

The appeals court agreed with a lower court judge who ruled in 2010 that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns.

So President Obama's decision not to defend DOMA in court isn't looking so crazy, after all. As we've discussed before, denial of civil marriage equality is denial of equal protection under the law. However, the DOMA case also tackles states' rights in that the federal government has been refusing to treat legally married couples in certain states like it treats all other married couples. Why is the federal government not respecting all states' marriage laws and married couples?

In some ways, the DOMA case represents a bit of a legal role reversal from Lambda Legal's marriage equality law suit here in Nevada, where Governor Brian Sandoval is arguing that our state has the right to deny marriage licenses to gay & lesbian couples. So don't get too excited in trying to read tea leaves in Massachusetts as to how it affects the Question 2 challenge here. They are two separate cases tackling two different sets of issues. The DOMA law suit in Massachusetts is about the federal government's denial of federal marriage benefits to already married LGBTQ families, while the Question 2 law suit here in Nevada is about the state's marriage equality ban potentially violating the federal Constitution.

Still, today is another good day for equality in court. And certainly if both law suits succeed, then Nevada LGBTQ families will be doubly blessed in that both the state and federal governments will finally give us equal protection under the law.

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