Friday, July 09, 2010

Meanwhile, Back In Reality

In a calmly reasoned opinion, a Massachusetts District Court has declared the key element of the federal "Defense of Marriage Act" -- or DOMA -- unconstitutional.  DOMA's denial of all federal marriage benefits to gay couples violates the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.  The Court explained that:
"it is only sexual orientation that differentiates a married couple entitled to federal marriage-based benefits from one not so entitled. And this court can conceive of no way in which such a difference might be relevant to the provision of the benefits at issue.  By premising eligibility for these benefits on marital status in the first instance, the federal government signals to this court that the relevant distinction to be drawn is between married individuals and unmarried individuals. To further divide the class of married individuals into those with spouses of the same sex and those with spouses of the opposite sex is to create a distinction without meaning."
The Court concluded that "it is only irrational prejudice that motivates the challenged classification."

 Much of the Court's reasoning was based on the fact that marriage laws are entirely the domain of the individual state governments. This argument may be an obstacle to future efforts to use the federal constitution to strike down anti-gay marriage laws in the states, although that remains to be seen.  Prior to passage of DOMA, the federal role had simply been to recognize whatever arrangement the various states decided should constitute a valid marriage.  After DOMA, however, the federal government declared that same sex marriages would be treated differently, even if a state treated them the same.  This revealed the unconstitutional bigotry motivating supporters of DOMA and led the Court to strike it down insofar as it denies equal treatment to gay and lesbian citizens.

No doubt conservative bigots and political opportunists will wail that "activist courts" should not make such decisions.  Yet this is precisely the role played by the Courts in America -- applying the law equally to all.

No comments: