HRC Blog

Historic: Federal Appeals Court Rules against Defense of Marriage Act

United States Court of Appeals; Pride flagPost submitted by Michael Cole-Schwartz, Former HRC Director of Communications

The writing is on the wall for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

A ruling this morning by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision that the denial of federal rights and benefits to lawfully-married same-sex couples is unconstitutional.  The ruling -- authored by President George H.W. Bush appointee Judge Boudin for the three judge panel – comes in two cases: Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders on behalf of married Massachusetts same-sex couples who were denied specific federal rights and benefits and Massachusetts v. Department of Health and Human Services, brought by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts itself.   

Currently, six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry.  This year, legislatures in Maryland and Washington State approved marriage equality laws, but they are not yet in effect and are likely to be subject to popular referenda.  Under DOMA, even those lawfully-married couples cannot be recognized by the federal government, and as a result are denied access to more than 1,100 rights, benefits and responsibilities under federal law.  These include Social Security survivor benefits, federal employee health benefits for spouses, protections against spouses losing their homes in cases of severe medical emergencies, the right to sponsor a foreign born partner for immigration, the guarantee of family and medical leave and the ability to file joint tax returns, among many others.

In July 2010, a federal district court judge ruled in the Gill and Massachusetts cases that DOMA is unconstitutional.  Two other federal district courts and a federal bankruptcy court have subsequently agreed.  The House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), which is currently defending DOMA, is likely to appeal today’s decision, either to larger panel of the First Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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