The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was passed by Congress in response to the holding by the Hawaii Supreme Court in 1993 that it might be a violation of the Hawaii state constitution to deny marriage licenses to couples of the same sex. DOMA has two main sections. Section 2 provides that individual states do not have to recognize marriages of same sex couples performed in another state. Section 3 provides that same sex marriages are not recognized under federal law. Section 3 acts to deny same sex couples who are legally married in the half a dozen or so states that have marriage equality a whole host of federal benefits that opposite sex couples married in those same states enjoy. These include filing joint federal tax returns, receipt of surviving spouse benefits under Social Security, and spousal health insurance coverage for federal employees including military personnel. DOMA also prohibits states from extending benefits to same sex married couples when those benefits are partially funded by federal funds. Things like Medicaid benefits and burial in veterans’ cemeteries that receive federal funding. It was Section 3 that was challenged by the plaintiff’s in the recent case.
The recent case was the combination of two separate cases. One was brought by individuals who were legally married in Massachusetts to someone of the same sex and one was brought by the state of Massachusetts. A three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the decision of the trial court, which was the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, in holding DOMA unconstitutional. Essentially, the Court of Appeals found that the burdens placed on married same sex couples were significant and that the rationales for DOMA stated by Congress and offered by proponents did not provide adequate support to justify those burdens. The U. S. Court of Appeals stayed the effects of its decision pending review by the U.S. Supreme Court stating that such review was highly likely.