Defense of Marriage Act Ruled Unconstitutional by Appeals Court

The heart of the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, which insists that marriage is only a heterosexual union, was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in Boston.

The U.S. appeals court in Boston ruled Thursday that it unfairly denies equal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Photo: Michael Verhoef/Flickr

Thursday’s opinion in Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was written by Judge Michael Boudin, who was appointed by the previous President George H.W. Bush.

It was joined by Chief Judge Sandra Lynch, a Clinton appointee, and Judge Juan Torruella, a Reagan appointee.

In the key passage, the judges stressed they were upholding a state’s right to insist on equal treatment for its married couples.

“The denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married does burden the choice of states like Massachusetts to regulate the rules and incidents of marriage,” the appeals judges said in an opinion yesterday, upholding the ruling of a lower court.

Although most Americans live in states where the law forbids same-sex unions, the power to define marriage had always been left to the individual states before Congress passed DOMA, the appeals court said in its ruling.

“One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage,” Judge Michael Boudin wrote for the court.

“Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress’ denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.”

The Boston’s decision is a victory for gay-rights advocates and the Obama administration, which had refused to defend that part of the 1996 law, says The Los Angeles Times.

The ruling sets the stage for a ruling next year by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the law that will limit federal recognition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman.

“The panel is the first appellate court to have declared any part of the federal law unconstitutional”, said Kenji Yoshino, a professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law in Manhattan.

In a phone interview the specialist added that doesn’t mean any state had to change its definition of marriage.

“It just said that if a state allowed same-sex marriage, then the federal government should do what it’s traditionally done and respect whatever definition the state has adopted of marriage,” he explained.

According to Fox News, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked whether the Obama administration would actively fight for overturning the law, which was signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Press Secretary responded that the Obama administration has concluded the section in question is unconstitutional and will no longer defend it in court.

Carney avoided questions considering possible steps of the administration in the future and described the Justice Department as an “active participant” in the case.

“There’s no question that this is in concert with the president’s views,” he said. “I can’t predict what the next steps will be in handling cases of this nature.”

Gay marriage advocates hailed Thursday’s decision, while its opponents condemned it.

“Society should protect and strengthen marriage, not undermine it. The federal Defense of Marriage Act provides that type of protection, and we trust the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the 1st Circuit’s erroneous decision,” said a statement from Alliance Defense Fund Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt.

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