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May 31, 2012

Federal Appeals Court Rules DOMA Section 3 Unconstitutional

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled unanimously that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional with respect to claims brought by seven married same-sex couples and three widowers from Massachusetts. The ruling has been stayed pending a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress’ will, this statute fails that test,” the court stated in its opinion.
“This is a strong opinion that affirms that DOMA is an outlier for two reasons. First, because it targets a historically disadvantaged and unpopular group.  Second, DOMA intrudes broadly into domestic relations, an area of traditional state regulation,” said Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s Civil Rights Project Director, who argued the case. “Congress does not get to put its ‘thumb on the scales,’ as the court put it, simply because it does not agree with Massachusetts’ decision to allow loving and committed same-sex couples to marry.”

Represented by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the plaintiffs in Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management have each been harmed because the federal government, under DOMA, has refused to recognize their marriages for all purposes, including Social Security protections, access to family health insurance policies, and joint income tax filings. On July 8, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. The U.S. Department of Justice appealed the ruling, which resulted in today’s decision.

The next step most likely in the case is for the federal defendants and BLAG to decide whether they will seek review in the Supreme Court. That request should come within the next 90 days.

Congress passed DOMA in 1996. Section 3 of the law states that only a marriage between one man and one woman will be recognized for federal purposes. The Obama Administration called the law discriminatory, even while defending it in court.

GLAD filed the Gill case on the grounds that DOMA Section 3 violates the federal constitutional guarantee of equal protection as applied to federal income tax, Social Security, federal employees and retirees, and the issuance of passports. The passport issue was resolved in 2009 when the State Department changed its policy.

Co-counsel in the Gill case included attorneys from the firms Foley Hoag LLP, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, Jenner & Block LLP, and Kator, Parks & Weiser, PLLC.

Details about the case, the plaintiffs, and the attorneys representing them can be found at http://www.glad.org/doma.

Read the Appeals Court ruling here.

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Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders is New England's leading legal organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression.