November 9, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Two new lawsuits target DOMA

LGBT rights groups are continuing efforts to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act with two new federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the statute.

On Tuesday, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union filed two separate lawsuits against Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.

Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s civil rights project director, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters that the federal government has no valid reason to engage in the regulation of marriage.

“We think there’s no legitimate reason whatsoever for the federal government to take one group of people who are already married and treat them differently from every other married couple,” she said.

Bonauto added that the authority to determine who can marry in the United States has traditionally been left to the states and said DOMA is the only federal law in U.S. history “that puts the federal government in the marriage business.”

The cases contend that DOMA violates the equal protection rights of same-sex couples under the U.S. Constitution.

James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and AIDS project, said DOMA is unconstitutional because the U.S. government “defers to state’s determination of whether a couple is married in every single context except when the couple is a same-sex married couple.”

“In that case, the federal government pretends that the couple isn’t married, but instead are strangers one to the other,” Esseks said. “That’s discrimination, and it violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.”

The GLAD lawsuit, known as Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management, is pending before the U.S. District Court of Connecticut and was filed on behalf of five married same-sex couples and a widower who reside in Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Each of the plaintiffs was denied the federal benefits of marriage in one respect or another, such as Social Security or the right to care for a spouse under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Joanne Pedersen, 57 and a Waterford, Conn., resident, said she’s participating in the lawsuit because although she’s a retiree of the Department of Naval Intelligence, DOMA prohibits her from insuring her spouse and partner of 12 years, who has a chronic lung condition.

“The naval community treated Ann just like other spouses, except when it came to sharing my benefits,” Pedersen said. “We both have some serious health challenges, and Ann has chronic health issues that make working stressful and draining for her. But Ann can’t hope to retire because DOMA prevents us from sharing health benefits.”

The ACLU lawsuit, known as Windsor v. United States, is pending before the U.S. District Court of Southern District of New York and was filed on behalf of a New York resident who had to pay $350,000 in federal estate taxes to receive her spouse’s inheritance.

Edith Windsor was partnered with Thea Spyer for 44 years before Spyer died last year after a battle with multiple sclerosis. The two married in Canada in 2007 and their marriage was recognized by the state of New York.

“After Thea died, the fact that the federal government refused to recognize our marriage was devastating,” Windsor said in a statement. “In the midst of my grief at the loss of the love of my life, I had to deal with my own government saying that we weren’t a family.”

Now that the organizations have filed the suits, the U.S. government has 60 days to respond. The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment, but has previously defended DOMA against other lawsuits.

Esseks noted the Justice Department has a few months to answer. With regard to the ACLU lawsuit, he said “it’s too early to talk in any meaningful way” about the timeline for the case.

For the GLAD lawsuit, Bonauto said she hopes the case would be resolved at the district court level within 12 to 15 months. She said she doesn’t think the litigation would go to the U.S. Supreme Court before 2013.

The two new lawsuits come on the heels of other rulings by the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts in July determining that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro made the decisions in case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which was also filed by GLAD, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Following the district court’s decision to rule that part of DOMA is unconstitutional, the U.S. government appealed the cases to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, where the litigation is pending.

Bonauto said the additional GLAD lawsuit is necessary to continue to educate people about the “harms imposed by DOMA.” Additionally, she noted many of the plaintiffs in the Pedersen live in Vermont and Connecticut, which is in the Second Circuit, and wouldn’t be affected by a ruling in the First Circuit as a result of the Gill case.

“We are in a different federal judicial circuit here, so we have a chance to press once again the basic claim that DOMA is legally unconstitutional in terms of having a double-standard imposed only on gay and lesbian married couples,” Bonauto said.

If both the Gill and the Commonwealth cases reach the Supreme Court at the same time as justices take up the Pedersen case, Bonauto said she thinks the newer lawsuits could be combined with the older ones.

The filing of the lawsuits has inspired different reactions among advocacy groups that work on marriage. In a statement to the Blade, Maggie Gallagher, chair of the National Organization for Marriage, chided LGBT groups for continuing to challenge DOMA in the wake of Election Day results.

“After Tuesday’s election, in which gay marriage lost big, it’s pretty clear gay marriage advocates have failed to win the majority of Americans and so are turning once again to courts to impose views and values they’ve failed to persuade their friends, neighbors and fellow citizens to support,” she said.

But Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the litigation provides further evidence that DOMA is “not simply an abstract insult to the dignity of same-sex couples and their families — although it is indeed a deeply offensive law.”

“DOMA causes real harm to people like Joanne Pedersen, Ann Meitzen and Edie Windsor, denying them economic security, health coverage and other critical federal rights and benefits that other married couples take for granted,” Solmonese said.

One legal expert praised the GLAD and ACLU lawsuits for their potential in striking down DOMA. Nan Hunter, a lesbian and law professor at Georgetown University, said forecasting the outcome of any particular lawsuit is difficult, but said the way DOMA is challenged in these cases is “quite promising.”

“It allows the courts to rule on a law that changed the status quo by singling out only gays and reversing — only for that one group — the federal government position of recognizing all marriages that were valid under state law,” she said.

Hunter said the litigation strategy is similar to what was presented in Romer v. Evans, a 1996 case before the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned a Colorado ban on making gays a protected class in the state. Hunter recalled that in the Romer case, the high court “invalidated a state provision that singled out gays for having to meet a higher barrier in order to enact a civil rights law.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the name of James Esseks. The Blade regrets the error.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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