Federal Judge: Gay Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

A federal judge in Boston has ruled that a ban on gay marriage contained in the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it interferes with a state's right to define marriage. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Tovia Smith about the ruling.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There's a big victory today in the legal battle for gay marriage. A U.S. district court judge in Boston has ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which bans same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional. The decision may have immediate consequences for gay couples in Massachusetts, as well as ripple effects around the nation.

NPR's Tovia Smith is covering the story.

Tovia, tells us about this decision today coming from the judge in Boston.

TOVIA SMITH: Well, the judge ruled on two cases. One was brought by the state of Massachusetts and another brought by these eight same-sex marriage couples. Both cases basically argued that marriage has always been the domain of states. And if a state says a couple is married, then a couple is married, and the federal government should recognize it.

And historically that's been the case, they point out. Differences in age requirements for marriage or incest rules or race restrictions, for example, the federal government has always deferred to states. So these couples and the state argued that the federal government should defer on gay marriages as well. And these couples said that they suffered denial of certain rights and benefits that other couples would get. For example, they could file their state taxes jointly as a married couple but not federal taxes.

And that the federal government was basically creating a second class of marriage and treating them unequally and violating the Constitution. And the federal judge today agreed, saying that this double standard amounted to unfair discrimination that the government was creating.

The decision says a distinction without meaning, and that legally, it amounts to nothing more than an irrational prejudice. So as one of the couples said today, this is life-changing for them. They can get on their partners' health insurance now. But I should also say that this only applies in Massachusetts to same-sex couples here. It doesn't carry beyond Massachusetts.

BLOCK: Now, the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress, signed by President Clinton in 1996, the Justice Department has defended the act, even though President Obama has said he would like to see it repealed. Has there been any reaction to this ruling from the Obama administration?

SMITH: Right now, they're saying that they're still reviewing the decision. They have said, in the past, that it's their job to defend the law. We can't pick and choose based on policy preferences, but they were in this kind of awkward position kind of going out of their way to call the law discriminatory but also vigorously defending it.

And one important note here that, while this is very big, very significant, it is somewhat narrow in scope. The federal DOMA does several things. One is make sure the federal government doesn't have to recognize gay marriage. That part was ruled unconstitutional. A totally separate part ensures that states don't have to recognize other states' gay marriages. So, for example, Kentucky doesn't have to recognize a marriage of a gay couple in Massachusetts. That part of DOMA was not challenged here and still stands unaffected.

BLOCK: So, Tovia, what happens now?

SMITH: Well, an appeal is all but certain. That could take a year or two, and then it is almost certainly going to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, and it may be years before this question is really settled.

BLOCK: Okay, Tovia, thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Tovia Smith reporting on the ruling from a federal judge in Boston that the Defense of Marriage Act banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

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