Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage, continued to lead on this civil rights issue Wednesday when it sued the federal government for its enactment and enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The state has an excellent case to make in court, but ideally, President Obama, who has claimed without much evidence to oppose DOMA, will take advantage of this opportunity to become the point person for its repeal.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boston by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, argues that the Act is discriminatory because it deprives federal benefits to the approximately 16,000 same-sex couples who have been married in Massachusetts over the past five years. Ideally, the five other states that have followed Massachusetts' lead will join the commonwealth in its lawsuit.
DOMA, passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, is a spiteful law enacted in haste because of the expectation that Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage, inspiring other states to follow suit. As Ms. Coakley observed yesterday, the federal government had long regarded marital status as the "exclusive prerogative of the states" until its panicky passage of DOMA. That history makes DOMA's legal status dubious, and as the lawsuit argues, the Act's denial of income tax credits, employment, Medicaid and insurance benefits and Social Security payments to married same-sex couples even though all of those perquisites are accorded to married heterosexual couples is transparently unconstitutional.
President Obama is eloquent as always when addressing gay rights, but he opposes gay marriage, and while repeal of DOMA was part of his campaign platform, he has dragged his feet on this and related issues, such as ending the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in regard to homosexuals in the military. When the Obama Justice Department defended DOMA in a court brief, it was apparent that the administration would have to be prodded into living up to its promises. Wednesday's lawsuit follows by four months a similar suit brought by the Boston-based Gay and & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
Beyond asserting that the federal government overstepped its authority and undermined states' rights in passing DOMA, the lawsuit notes significantly and commendably that the Act "codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people." The legalese of DOMA can't disguise its hateful prejudice. Five years after gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, with the institution of marriage as strong as ever in spite of the warnings of critics of gay marriage, that animus is dissipating in our state. With this lawsuit, Massachusetts can help eradicate it throughout the nation.