October 31, 2009
U.S. argues against same-sex benefits
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON States that allow gay marriage can’t force the federal government to provide benefits to those couples, the Obama administration argued Friday in court papers in a lawsuit by Massachusetts.
The Justice Department is at odds with Massachusetts, the first state to allow gay marriage, over a 1996 federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Massachusetts sued in July, saying that law is discriminatory and deprives gay couples in the state of some federal spousal benefits.
The Obama administration agrees the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, is discriminatory and wants it repealed, but says it must defend laws enacted by Congress while they are on the books and can be reasonably defended.
The law “does not prohibit gay and lesbian couples from marrying, nor does it prohibit the states from acknowledging same-sex marriages,” according to the court filing by Assistant Attorney General Tony West.
Massachusetts, the filing says, is trying to claim individuals have a right to federal benefits based on marital status.
“There is, however, no fundamental right to marriage-based federal benefits,” the 36-page filing says.
Joe Solmonese, head of the nation’s largest gay-rights group, Human Rights Campaign, said the law is discriminatory and the Obama administration should not defend it.
“While we hope Massachusetts prevails in this lawsuit, we are also looking to the administration to put its full weight behind efforts to repeal DOMA in Congress,” Solmonese said.
The 1996 law denies federal recognition of gay marriage and gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Massachusetts is the first state to sue the government over the DOMA law. Some gay couples have filed their own lawsuits challenging the law, but this case is unique in pitting a state against the federal government over the issue.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said any state “can allow gay and lesbian citizens to marry and can make its own decisions about how to treat married couples when it comes to state benefits.”
“Massachusetts is not being denied the right to provide benefits to same-sex couples and, in fact, has enacted a law to provide equal health benefits to same-sex spouses,” she said.
In earlier filings, the government has sought to dismiss the Defense of Marriage Act lawsuits brought by individuals.