The United States government is being sued by one of its own over the federal ban on same-sex marriage.
The state of Massachusetts filed suit against the federal government and numerous other parties last week, challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act — the first state in the nation to do so.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed the suit in U.S. District Court July 8, also naming the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Department of Veteran Affairs and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki as defendants.
The 1996 law prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriage and allows states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states.
DOMA prohibits same-sex couples who have been legally married from having some 1,100 rights and responsibilities granted to heterosexual couples by the federal government, such as federal income-tax credits, health-insurance coverage and Social Security and retirement benefits.
Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004 and, since then, more than 16,000 same-sex couples have received marriage licenses there.
The suit maintains that, prior to DOMA, the definition of marriage had been the “exclusive prerogative of the states,” but that Massachusetts and other states that now allow gay marriage must inherently discriminate against same-sex married couples in their states because of the denial of the federal benefits.
“DOMA directly interferes with Massachusetts’ longstanding sovereign authority to define and regulate the marital status of its residents, which all states have enjoyed until this instance,” Coakley said during a press conference last week. “Massachusetts has a single category of married person, and we view all married persons equally and identically. DOMA divides that category into two distinct and unequal classes of marriage in our state by denying hundreds of rights and protections to same-sex couples and their families.”
The suit holds that DOMA has forced Massachusetts to deny medical benefits under MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, to same-sex couples because the program receives partial federal funding, and also prevents the state from allowing same-sex partners of veterans to be buried in veteran cemeteries.
“In enacting DOMA, Congress overstepped its authority, undermined states’ efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples and codified an animus toward gay and lesbian people,” the suit states.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said DOMA was created a “discriminatory and mean-spirited” law and continues to “stand between thousands of married couples and the equal protections they deserve.”
“We applaud the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for stepping forward on behalf of these families and saying, in essence, ‘enough is enough,’” Solmonese said. “Now it is time for the federal government to take affirmative steps to challenge and repeal this discriminatory law that causes real harm to loving, married couples and their children.”
Charles Miller, spokesperson for the Department of Justice, which is charged with defending the federal government against legal action, said last week the department will review the case, but that President Obama “supports legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act because it prevents LGBT couples from being granted equal rights and benefits.”
The suit could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, but would first have to be heard in both District Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
In March, Boston-based group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed suit in a federal court against DOMA.
The GLAD suit specifically challenges the denial of federal benefits to same-sex married couples, while Coakley noted the state’s suit is broader in scope.