DOMA and the Supreme Court: The White House files to overturn anti-gay law

Edith Windsor, 83, prepares for the Supreme Court to hear her challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act
Edith Windsor, 83, prepares for the Supreme Court to hear her challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act
Richard Drew/AP

The White House continues to push for marriage equality, attempting to turn rhetoric into action. On Friday, the Obama administration formally urged the Supreme Court to strike down a key portion of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriage.

The 67-page legal doc filed with the Department of Justice, titled United States v. Windsor, challenges Section 3 of DOMA, arguing that it “violates the fundamental constitutional guarantee of equal protection.”

The 1996 law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and denies all federal benefits to same-sex couples, including survivor benefits and insurance for government employees. Under the law as it stands now, states can also refuse to recognize gay marriages in states contracted in other states where it’s legal.

The brief signed by the U.S. chief trial lawyer Solicitor General Donald Verrilli states, ”The law denies to tens of thousands of same-sex couples who are legally married under state law an array of important federal benefits that are available to legally married opposite-sex couples” and declared flatly, “because this discrimination cannot be justified as substantially furthering any important governmental interest, Section 3 is unconstitutional.”

In the spring of 2011, the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the law in court because they deemed it unconstitutional. But, according to Lyle Denniston of the SCOTUSblog, “this is the first time the federal government has proposed that constitutional test in a gay rights case before the Supreme Court.”

In recent weeks, President Obama has been discussing civil rights within the gay community with increased frequency in public speeches. Earlier in the month during his State of the Union address, he said, “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families—gay and straight.” And he became the first president to mention the LGBT community in an inaugural address. In his speech, he noted “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

In January, House Republicans quietly raised their budgetary allowance to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court.

Oral arguments are scheduled to begin on March 27.