Massachusetts, the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage, has become the first to challenge the constitutionality of a federal law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, saying Congress intruded into a matter that should be left to individual states.
"Our familes, our communities, and even our economy have seen the many important benefits that have come from recognizing equal marriage rights and, frankly, no downside," Attorney General Martha Coakley said this afternoon at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. "However, we have also seen how many of our married residents and their families are being hurt by a discriminatory, unprecedented, and, we believe, unconstitutional law."
The suit filed in US District Court in Boston claims that the Congress, in enacting the DOMA, "overstepped its authority, undermined states' efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people."
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes gay marriage, said, "We believe the suit will have no credibility in the federal courts. The federal courts have already ruled that the DOMA is constitutional."
He also noted that the DOMA was signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton with a majority on both sides of Congress. "The nation is very resolute [in support of] the DOMA," he said.
The lawsuit argues that the DOMA, which was enacted in 1996, precludes same-sex spouses in Massachusetts from a wide range of protections, including federal income tax credits, employment and retirement benefits, health insurance coverage, and Social Security payments.
The defendants named in the lawsuit include the US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and the United States itself. Charles Miller, a US Justice Department spokesman, said, "We haven't seen it. Once we are served with it, we'll review it and make a determination as to how to respond."
The lawsuit questions the constitutionality of Section 3 of the law, which defines the word "marriage" for the purpose of federal law as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." It does not challenge the constitutionality of Section 2, which provides that states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The suit alleges that the law violates the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states all powers except those granted to the federal government. It also alleges that the law violates Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which limits the power of Congress to attach conditions to the receipt of federal funds.
"We applaud the Commonwealth's decision to seek to protect its married citizens from the harms caused by federal discrimination," said Janson Wu, staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston, which filed its own lawsuit challenging the law on March 3.
Wu said the lawsuit brought by the organization on behalf of nine same-sex couples and three widowers relied more on equal protection claims, while the state's lawsuit relies on a federalism argument.
Gay marriages began in Massachusetts in 2004. Gay marriage has been legalized in all the New England states, except Rhode Island, as well as in Iowa. Coakley noted that the suit is focused on the impact of Section 3 of the DOMA in Massachusetts.
Coakley also noted she backs the repeal of the DOMA. "I think everybody would agree that times have changed since 1996," she said.