A federal appeals court recently became the second such court to declare DOMA–the federal “Defense of Marriage Act”–unconstitutional. The challenge was brought by an 83-year-old resident of New York State, where same-sex marriage is legal. When her partner–pardon me, her wife–died, DOMA allowed the IRS to assess an estate tax nearly 400,000 higher than she would have owed had her spouse been a man.
The court ruled that DOMA violates equal protection, by treating couples (all of whom are legally married in New York) differently, based solely upon whether the marriage partners are of the same or opposite sex. But the ruling did something even more important: it analyzed the case under what is called “heightened scrutiny.” If this part of the ruling holds up, it will make cases alleging discrimination based upon sexual orientation much easier to win.
Doug Masson has posted an excellent summary of the case. As he reports
To withstand intermediate scrutiny, a classification must be “substantially related to an important government interest.” “Substantially related” means that the explanation must be “exceedingly persuasive.”. The justification must be genuine, not hypothetical and not invented after the fact in response to litigation.
The Court rejected BLAG’s argument that Congress had an important interest in passing DOMA to maintain uniformity on the issue of marriage-related benefits in protection of the treasury. The court observed that Congress has historically allowed states to go their own way on marriage. (For example, rules about age, divorce, consanguinity, and paternity.) Indeed, the sudden federal intrusion into marriage is, itself, suspicious. (All the states-rights advocates have been clamoring for repeal of DOMA, yes?)
Another justification was preserving the historical understanding of marriage. But, the court observed, ancient lineage doesn’t protect a law where it lacks a rational basis. Miscegenation and anti-sodomy laws had pretty long historical roots of their own.
Another justification was encouraging responsible procreation. The court recognized that this could be an important government interest but did not see that DOMA advanced that interest.
DOMA does not provide any incremental reason for opposite-sex couples to engage in “responsible procreation.”6 Incentives for opposite-sex couples to marry and procreate (or not) were the same after DOMA was enacted as they were before. Other courts have likewise been unable to find even a rational connection between DOMA and encouragement of responsible procreation and child-rearing.
The Court also dismissed as “far-fetched” the idea that the laws passed by Congress might actually make people gay or effect their sexual orientation. It was also not persuaded by the idea that merely getting to use the extra-special word “marriage” would, on its own, promote stable opposite-sex marriages.
Because the court concluded that same sex married couples constituted a “quasi-suspect” class and because DOMA was not “substantially related” to an important government interest, the Second Circuit concluded, it must be regarded as being in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The ruling was satisfying. What was not satisfying–indeed, what was very disappointing–was the role of Indiana’s Attorney General, Greg Zoeller, who led the group of states arguing for DOMA and its constitutionality. I have generally been impressed with Zoeller; unlike the hot dogs and culture warriors and know-nothings we seem to elect, he has come across as thoughtful and modest, and willing to abide by precedent. (I realize that complimenting a lawyer on willingness to abide by the law is a bit odd, but these days, the bar is set really low.) His willingness to fight for a discriminatory law in a case that did not directly involve Indiana–a case where he was a volunteer–was disappointing.
The bottom line, however, is that despite the efforts of Zoeller and those who agree with him, equality for GLBT folks is coming.
Little by little, the barricades are coming down.