This case will not end here, but it’s a good start.
A federal appeals court has ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that denies a host of federal benefits to same-sex married couples, is unconstitutional.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled Thursday that the act known as DoMA, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, discriminates against gay couples.
The law was passed in 1996 at a time when it appeared Hawaii would legalize gay marriage. Since then, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have approved it, led by Massachusetts in 2004, and followed by Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington state and the District of Columbia. Maryland and Washington’s laws are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.
The appeals court agreed with a lower court judge who ruled in 2010 that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns.
The 1st Circuit said its ruling wouldn’t be enforced until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case, meaning that same-sex married couples will not be eligible to receive the economic benefits denied by DOMA until the high court rules.
A couple of thoughts: it was a unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel, two of whom were appointed by Republicans (Bush I and Reagan). It was also a ruling that stands up for states’ rights; the states are supposed to set the rules for marriage within their borders, and DOMA impedes the rights of the states to grant privileges to married couples. That’s because when the law was written, no state had legalized marriage equality, and DOMA was an attempt to end-run them if they did.
This puts the anti-equality folks in a box. They can claim this was an outlier ruling by liberal activist judges, but they’re not, and this ruling hoists the righties on their own petard of states’ rights vs. federalism. As Erik Kain at Mother Jones points out, states’ rights can be a double-edged sword. They’ve been the backbone of horrors like segregation and slavery, and yet they have stood up against bad federal laws such as DOMA and the ban on medical marijuana, and as we’re seeing in Florida, the feds are stepping in to preserve the voting rights of people being trampled on by the state. So there is a balance between federalism and states’ rights that comes into play.
Perhaps the most ironic part is that the folks who are most vehemently in favor of states’ rights are also the ones demanding a federal constitutional ban on marriage equality. As we speak, someone on the right is coming up with an argument that the federal government should totally rule over marriage but not voting. After all, voting may be a right, but marriage is sacred.
The fallout of yesterday’s ruling is that it will go to the Supreme Court.