Federal court hears arguments in DOMA challenge

BOSTON - On May 6 in Boston, six years after the first same-sex couples in the country started marrying in Massachusetts, eight married same-sex couples and three widowers went to federal district court to hear arguments in their challenge to Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA defines marriage as only between a man and a woman for all purposes under federal law.

Represented by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the plaintiffs in Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management, all married in Massachusetts, have each been harmed by DOMA treating them as unmarried.

"This is a classic equal protection issue. The Constitution applies to gay and lesbian citizens, and married ones, too," Mary L. Bonauto, GLAD's Civil Rights Project director, told the court.

"What governmental purpose does the U.S. have as an employer in treating some of its married employees, retirees and surviving annuitants differently from other married persons, such that (plaintiff) Nancy Gill pays for a self and family plan like some of her married colleagues, but the plan doesn't cover her own spouse?"

Bonauto presented a three-pronged legal argument.

By singling out only the marriages of same-sex couples, DOMA violates the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution; DOMA represents an unprecedented intrusion of the federal government into marriage law, which for 230 years has been legislated by states; and by denying federal protections to families, DOMA burdens the marriages of same-sex couples and their right to maintain family integrity.

U.S. District Court Judge, Joseph L. Tauro, vigorously questioned plaintiffs and defendants in a courtroom packed with supporters and media. Judge Tauro heard GLAD's motion for summary judgment as well as the federal government's motion to dismiss. The hearing addressed the core issue of whether DOMA Section 3 is constitutional six years after the first same-sex couples in the country started marrying in Massachusetts, the result of GLAD's groundbreaking marriage case, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

As a result of DOMA, passed by Congress in 1996, plaintiffs in GLAD's lawsuit have been denied survivor benefits on a deceased spouse's pension; denied health insurance coverage for a spouse on a federal family plan; denied Social Security spousal, death, and widower benefits; and denied the ability to file federal income taxes jointly as married.

"DOMA means that our country doesn't treat our family or our marriage as equal to our friends' and coworkers' families," said Gill after the hearing. A U.S. Postal Service employee, Gill, with her spouse Marcelle Letourneau, is raising two children in Brockton, Mass. "Under DOMA, we are not married, and my federal employer must deny Marcelle my health benefits," she continued. "Under DOMA, Marcelle won't receive the federal health benefit given to surviving spouses. She'll also be denied my pension benefits."

The case was filed on March 3 and has been called the case with the greatest potential for national impact by the National Law Journal. The Gill legal team is led by Bonauto and GLAD Legal Director Gary Buseck, as well as staff attorneys Nima Eshghi, Janson Wu and Samuel Bickett.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders is New England's leading legal organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status and gender identity and expression.

Information about the case, the plaintiffs and the attorneys representing them can be found at http://www.glad.org/doma.

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