US & World

Judge: Federal Gay Marriage Ban Is Unconstitutional

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

A U.S. judge in Boston has ruled that a federal gay marriage ban is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define marriage.

Gay advocates are hailing a U.S. district court ruling in Boston that could bring federal recognition to gay marriages from Massachusetts. On Thursday, the judge said part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act -- DOMA -- is unconstitutional.

The case was brought by eight gay couples who argued the federal government was unfairly denying them basic perks that other married couples get -- like Social Security benefits and certain tax breaks.

The couples argued the federal government has always deferred to states on who's married -- for example, in terms of age or race -- so if Massachusetts says they are married, they should be recognized as married.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro agreed. He said when it comes to providing benefits, he could conceive of "no way" in which a couple's sexual orientation is relevant.

"I was cooking dinner and heard it and I just let out a woo hooo," says Nancy Gill.

The ruling means that her longtime partner, Marcelle Letourneau, whom she married in 2006, can now get health insurance through Gill's job with the U.S. Postal Service. "I just think how life-changing this can be for our family," Letourneau says. "I mean it gives us peace of mind."

The court ruled that denying benefits to gay couples was not only discriminatory but also a violation of states' rights.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley made that argument in a parallel, separate suit, accusing the federal government of encroaching on state sovereignty -- and the court agreed.

"It's exactly the result we that wanted," Coakley says. "The federal government really doesn't have an interest in telling Massachusetts, and has never in the past had an ability to dictate how states define marriage. Marriage has been an issue that has been decided by the states."

It's an argument particularly infuriating to conservative opponents, who've used the states' rights arguments to fight gay marriage.

They insist Congress was well within its rights in 1996 to define marriage for the purpose of federal programs. They add that the judge overstepped when he ruled that DOMA had absolutely no rational basis and, in legal terms, amounts to "irrational prejudice."

"That's absurd to say that the voters in 31 states, who've held that marriage is the union of a man and woman, are somehow bigots; that's absurd," says Brian Brown of the National Organization For Marriage. "What this judge is essentially doing is declaring a new cultural war."

The judge's ruling is limited in scope: It applies only to couples in Massachusetts, and it deals only with federal recognition of gay marriage. It does not limit a state's right to reject another state's gay marriage.

The case is far more narrow than the one pending in California that argues any ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.

But Ohio State University professor Marc Spindelman says the Massachusetts decision may prove to be broadly influential.

"The court's decision doesn't box any other court in, but it's certainly likely to be persuasive authority and virtually certain to have a significant ripple effect," Spindelman says.

That ripple will grow if the Massachusetts decision survives expected challenges and makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Obama administration lawyers are not yet commenting but an appeal is likely.

The president opposes DOMA, but administration lawyers say it's their job to defend the law, and they can't pick and choose based on their policy preferences.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit