Federal Defense of Marriage Act: Legal Challenge
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. Section 3 of the Act states, “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only the legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, both residents of New York State, had been in a long time lesbian relationship. In 2007 they traveled to Canada and got married. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005.
Spyer passed away in 2009 and Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in inheritance taxes for the money and property left to her by Spyer. Had Windsor been in an opposite-sex relationship under the same circumstances, she would not have had to pay any taxes. But the IRS ruled she was not a “spouse” under section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and could not therefore take advantage of the spousal exemption.
Windsor filed an action against the United States government for a refund of the taxes paid and argued that DOMA was unconstitutional. On June 6, 2012, a judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, granted summary judgment to Windsor. The court found the legislation violated the Equal Protection Clause because there was no rational basis to support the distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
Although New York state now recognizes gay marriage, same-sex marriages were not recognized when Windsor and Spyer married, nor in 2009 when Spyer died.
On October 18, 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling and declared DOMA unconstitutional. The appellate court found homosexuals to be a class of people subject to discrimination and unable to protect themselves from the will of the majority. The court ruled that the difference in treatment afforded to marriages of gays and lesbians was not substantially related to an important government interest.
The court rejected the argument that DOMA was necessary to bring uniformity throughout the U.S. The federal government often defers to the states in the area of domestic relations law, and nothing in the Constitution gives the American government jurisdiction over marriage and divorce.
The justices also rejected the argument that DOMA was justified to limit the amount of benefits the government is required to pay. Denying benefits to any arbitrarily defined group accomplishes this and many of the effects of DOMA have nothing to do with the amount of money the federal government must pay to its citizens.
The court also rejected the argument that DOMA was necessary in order to encourage reproduction, a relevant government interest. The court found that nothing in the law changes the reproduction practises of either same-sex or opposite-sex couples. The appeals court sided with the lower court that there was no compelling interest that would require homosexual marriages to be treated differently than heterosexual ones.
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