Judge hears DOMA case

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Nancy Gill  and Macelle Letourneau

Nancy Gill and Marcelle Letourneau are plaintiffs in a federal case to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. – Photo: Courtesy GLAD

A Boston federal judge held the first hearing on an equal protection challenge to the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Representing eight same-sex couples and three widowers, attorney Mary L. Bonauto told U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro May 6: “This is a classic equal protection issue. The Constitution applies to gay and lesbian citizens, and married ones, too. What governmental purpose does the U.S. have as an employer in treating some of its married employees, retirees and surviving annuitants differently from other married persons?”

Bonauto is with the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the New England LGBT organization that first won a legal fight for civil unions in Vermont and then, six years ago, secured marriage rights for same-sex couples in Massachusetts.

GLAD is challenging Section 3 of DOMA, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, when it seemed Hawaii might legalize same-sex marriage. Hawaii didn’t legalize gay marriage, but five states and the District of Columbia have in the years since.

Section 3 of DOMA defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman for all purposes under federal law. DOMA thus bars the U.S. government from extending to legally married same-sex couples the estimated 1,000 rights and benefits extended to legally married opposite-sex couples, including pensions, health insurance, widower benefits and joint tax filings.

“DOMA means that our country doesn’t treat our family or our marriage as equal to our friends’ and co-workers’ families,” said plaintiff Nancy Gill, a U.S. Postal Service employee who is legally married to Marcelle Letourneau. Together the women are raising two children.

“Under DOMA, we are not married, and my federal employer must deny Marcelle my health benefits. Under DOMA, Marcelle won’t receive the federal health benefit given to surviving spouses. She’ll also be denied my pension benefits,” Gill said.

During the hearing, Bonauto argued that:

  • By singling out only the marriages of same-sex couples, DOMA violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
  • DOMA represents an unprecedented intrusion of the federal government into marriage law, which for 230 years has been legislated by states.
  • By denying federal protections to families, DOMA burdens the marriages of same-sex couples and their right to maintain family integrity.

U.S. Justice Department attorney W. Scott Simpson presented the defense, which included a statement that the Obama administration disagrees with DOMA.

Simpson said DOMA allows states to determine whether to recognize same-sex marriage, but that states cannot dictate how the federal government will deal with marriage.

GLAD also argued a motion for summary judgment, while the Justice Department argued a motion to dismiss the case.

The federal court case, filed last March, is Gill et al v. Office of Personnel Management.

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