by Dina Lassow, Senior Counsel,
and Tiffany Wynn, Intern,
National Women's Law Center
In a recent pair of rulings that represent a victory for civil rights, Judge Tauro, a federal district judge in Massachusetts who was appointed by Richard Nixon, held that a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA") defining "marriage" as the union of one man and one woman is unconstitutional. In the first case, Massachusetts v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, brought by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court held that DOMA encroached upon the state’s authority to define marriage. In the second case, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which was brought by several same-sex couples, the court found that DOMA denied them their constitutional right to equal protection of the law. It demolished Congress’ stated rationale for enacting the law, stating that its only real purpose was "to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves."
The court noted that a study conducted by the federal government found that 1,138 federal laws tie benefits, rights, responsibilities or protections to marital status. For example, the plaintiffs in Gill were denied the federal health benefits available to heterosexual spouses, could not receive certain social security benefits, and could not file joint income tax returns.