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HISTORIC: Oral arguments heard in DOMA challenge

First time appeals court has considered case to overturn anti-gay law

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BOSTON — Oral arguments in a landmark legal proceeding challenging the Defense of Marriage Act unfolded Wednesday, marking the first time an appeals court has heard a challenge to the anti-gay federal law.

Lawyers squared off over the constitutionality of DOMA, amid discussion about whether the law fails a rational basis standard of scrutiny or interferes with a state’s rights under the Tenth Amendment.

Stuart Delery, who’s gay and the Justice Department’s acting assistant attorney general for the civil division, surprised many when he said the Obama administration wouldn’t defend DOMA on any basis, including under rational basis review.

Last year, the Obama administration said it would no longer defend DOMA in court, on the basis that President Obama had determined that the anti-gay law fails heightened scrutiny because it discriminates against gay couples.

Asked by Judge Juan Torruella whether the administration has a position on the rational basis test for the law, Delery replied, “We don’t.”

Delery’s position is significant because U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro in 2010 ruled in favor of plaintiffs on the basis that DOMA didn’t pass the rational basis standard review, or a rational means to a legitimate governmental end. Judges on the First Circuit will have to decide whether to affirm or overrule this decision.

Two cases challenging the constitutionality of DOMA are before the First Circuit: Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services, filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The three-judge panel hearing the cases is made up of Chief Judge Sandra Lynch as well as Torruella and Judge Michael Boudin. Lynch was appointed by a Democrat, former President Bill Clinton, while Torruella was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan and Boudin was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush.

Despite the administration’s position on rational basis review stated during the hearing, Delery said heightened scrutiny, or examining the law on the assumption that it’s discriminatory toward a group of people, is the appropriate way to handle DOMA because Congress passed DOMA in 1996 out of animus toward gay people.

Delery maintained that the name “DOMA” itself indicates that the anti-gay law was intended to discriminate against LGBT families.

“It was a defense against something, and that something was same-sex couples,” Delery said.

But the administration wasn’t willing to accept all arguments against DOMA. Delery said the administration doesn’t share the view that DOMA is unconstitutional on the basis that it interferes with a state’s Tenth Amendment right to regulate marriage, saying “that’s where we disagree” with the lawsuit.

Delery said Congress has the authority to define federal programs — even those related to marriage, where states traditionally have had jurisdiction on who can and cannot marry.

Defending DOMA in court was Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general. After the Obama administration declared it would no longer defend DOMA, House Speaker John Boehner hired Clement to advocate for DOMA on behalf of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which voted along party lines to take up defense of the law.

Kicking off the arguments, Clement said the Obama administration is free to change its opinion on whether DOMA would pass a rational basis test, but nonetheless the administration has previously argued in a legal brief that DOMA shouldn’t be struck down on this standard.

“It’s certainly open to the president and the attorney general to change their position, and to say that heightened scrutiny should apply, but that doesn’t make their prior submission go away, and it doesn’t make the arguments in their about why there are rational bases — in addition to some that we’ve covered in our brief — to support the statute,” Clement said.

Clement offered many reasons why DOMA should be upheld — among them was an assertion that opposite-sex marriages advance governmental interests because they can produce “unplanned offspring” unlike same-sex couples.

Additionally, Clement said DOMA isn’t an attempt to “override a state’s definition” of marriage, but merely allows the federal government to “preserve the status quo” as states began legalizing same-sex marriages in 1996 to keep benefits from federal programs, like Social Security, flowing only to opposite-sex married couples as they had in the past.

But Delery blasted the notion that procreation is a necessary component for any marriage — whether the union is opposite-sex or same-sex — saying straight couples can marry even if they don’t want and can’t have children.

“On the flip side, there are many children — hundreds of thousands, I think is the best estimate — who are being raised by same-sex parents in this country, and DOMA has the effect of denying those children the stability and protection that many of the federal benefits that we’re talking about in these cases would provide,” Delery said.

Significant discussion related to heightened scrutiny was focused on the case of Cook v. Gates, a challenge to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in which the First Circuit ruled that sexual orientation shouldn’t be considered a suspect class. Clement argued that the First Circuit is bound by this precedent not to apply heightened scrutiny to laws affecting gay people. But attorneys opposed to DOMA said this case shouldn’t be applied to the anti-gay law because courts traditionally grant the military a high level of deference.

Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s civil rights project director, represented her organization during the hearing and said the law violates equal protection under the Constitution regardless of whether heightened scrutiny or rational basis review is applied to the anti-gay law.

“To this day, the federal government defers to state marital determinations where marital status is a factor for federal protections,” Bonauto said. “But for DOMA, same-sex couples who began marrying here eight years ago like our plaintiffs would have been included in those federal laws, but DOMA’s precise point was to prevent that conclusion and created an across the board exclusion.”

Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Maura Healey argued on behalf of Massachusetts, saying that DOMA violates the state’s right under the Tenth Amendment to regulate marriage. She said an end to DOMA would return the federal government to “what it always has done” by recognizing state authority on which couples should be able to marry.

In her conclusion, Healey drew on the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and its implications for gay troops as a reason why the court should overturn DOMA.

“I’ll take you to our state veterans cemeteries because here the operations of DOMA really revives the concept of separate but equal,” Healy said. “In this day and age, when gay people can now go serve in the military, fight for our country and even die, unlike other married service members, they can’t be buried with their spouse on state land in our veterans cemetery. Instead, Massachusetts is essentially required to build on the next hillside over a cemetery for those veterans. We think that’s wrong.”

The panel has no set time to make a ruling in the cases, but advocates are hoping for a speedy decision. Once a decision is reached, it can be appealed either to the full First Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: drag is ‘vulgar and lewd,’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Ruling ‘bristles with hostility toward LGBTQ people’

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J. Marvin Jones Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse in Amarillo, Texas (Photo: Library of Congress)

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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The White House

Harris to oversee White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Goal is to implement and expand upon legislation, executive actions

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, September 2023. (Official White House photograph by Lawrence Jackson)

The White House announced Thursday evening that President Joe Biden on Friday will establish the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The office will focus on implementing and expanding upon executive and legislative actions, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “to reduce gun violence, which has ravaged communities across the country.”

Serving under Harris will be Stefanie Feldman, “a longtime policy advisor to President Biden on gun violence prevention,” and “leading gun violence prevention advocates Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox.”

“Every time I’ve met with families impacted by gun violence as they mourn their loved ones, and I’ve met with so many throughout the country, they all have the same message for their elected officials: ‘do something,'” Biden said in a statement.

The president noted his signing of last year’s bipartisan gun violence prevention law, a flagship legislative accomplishment for the administration, along with his issuance of more executive actions than any president in history to address this problem.

Calling these “just the first steps,” Biden said the establishment of the White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention will “build upon these measures and keep Americans safe.”

He also urged Congress to do more by passing legislation requiring universal background checks, and baning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

In a statement, Harris said, “This epidemic of gun violence requires urgent leadership to end the fear and trauma that Americans experience every day.”

“The new Office of Gun Violence Prevention will play a critical role in implementing President Biden’s and my efforts to reduce violence to the fullest extent under the law,” she said, “while also engaging and encouraging Congressional leaders, state and local leaders, and advocates to come together to build upon the meaningful progress that we have made to save lives.”

“Our promise to the American people is this: we will not stop working to end the epidemic of gun violence in every community, because we do not have a moment, nor a life to spare,” the vice president said.

Then Vice President Biden hugs Brandon J. Wolf as he talks with family members of the victims and survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
Wolf, a Pulse survivor, was recently appointed National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
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