A federal court in Manhattan became the latest to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, a law prohibiting the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.
In a 2-1 ruling, a panel for the Second Circuit court ruled that the law violates the Constitution's Equal Protection clause, which mandates uniform treatment under the law. That upheld a lower court's ruling, which also sided with the plaintiff in declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
The plaintiff, Edith Windsor, sued after she was denied a federal estate tax deduction when her wife, whom she married in Canada, died in 2009. Although Windsor was at the time living in New York state, which has since joined seven other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing same-sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act still bars same-sex couples from receiving any federal marriage benefits.
"We conclude that homosexuality is a sufficiently discernible characteristic to define a discrete minority" deserving of legal protection, Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote in the majority opinion, adding that DOMA was not “substantially related to an important government interest” like "encouraging procreation.”
“Law (federal or state) is not concerned with holy matrimony,” Jacobs added. “Government deals with marriage as a civil status--however fundamental--and New York has elected to extend that status to same-sex couples. A state may enforce and dissolve a couple’s marriage, but it cannot sanctify or bless it.”
The Supreme Court is likely to take up same-sex marriage this term, and if it does so the case it chooses to hear could powerfully affect the scope and impact of the court’s ruling. Perhaps the best-known possibility is a case challenging a California ballot initiative, Proposition 8, that banned same-sex marriage in the state. The lawyers arguing against Proposition 8 have pushed a sweeping argument, pushing for a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
Earlier this year, President Obama became the first American president to unequivocally endorse the right of gay couples to get married. That came after Obama instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court, although he has repeatedly said that repealing the law is Congress’ responsibility.
While Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage was a historically momentous one, it has played little role in a presidential campaign dominated by economic concerns. Same-sex marriage did not come up in the vice presidential debate or either of the two presidential debates that have been held so far.