MANHATTAN (CN) – The Defense of Marriage Act took another hit from a federal judge who said the law unconstitutionally discriminates against gay couples.
Edith Schlain Windsor filed suit after she had to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax when her wife, Thea Spyer, succumbed to multiple sclerosis and a heart condition in 2009.
The couple had been together in New York City since 1963 and married each other in Canada and another jurisdiction where the practice is legal.
Though federal law provides an estate-tax exemption on spousal inheritances, Windsor could not qualify for the benefit under a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Windsor filed suit in 2010, around the same time that a federal judge in Boston ruled DOMA unconstitutional.
When the Obama administration told Congress that it would no longer defend the law in 2011, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives intervened to defend the statute’s constitutionality against Windsor’s suit.
In the last year, two federal judges in San Francisco have slammed the law as unconstitutional.
Windsor’s suit achieved the same result Wednesday, rejecting various DOMA justifications, such as claims that it defends the institution of marriage, encourages procreation and preserves scarce government resources.
“To the extent Congress had any other independent interest in approaching same-sex marriage with caution, for much the same reason, DOMA does not further it,” U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones wrote. “A number of states now permit same-sex marriages.”
Quoting the motion to dismiss Windsor’s case, Jones noted that “DOMA did not compel those states to ‘wait for evidence spanning a longer term before engaging in … a major redefinition of a foundational social institution.’
“Thus, whatever the ‘social consequences’ of this legal development ultimately may be, DOMA has not, and cannot, forestall them.”
Jones also addressed whether Congress may have enacted DOMA to promote “the ideal family structure for raising children.
“Again, the court does not disagree that promoting family values and responsible parenting are legitimate governmental goals,” she wrote. “The court cannot, however, discern a logical relationship between DOMA and those goals.
“These are interests in the choices that heterosexual couples make: whether to get married, and whether and when to have children,” she added. “Yet DOMA has no direct impact on heterosexual couples at all; therefore, its ability to deter those couples from having children outside of marriage, or to incentivize couples that are pregnant to get married, is remote, at best. It does not follow from the exclusion of one group from federal benefits (same-sex married persons) that another group of people (opposite-sex married couples) will be incentivized to take any action, whether that is marriage or procreation.”
DOMA defenders furthermore cannot claim that various states’ marriage laws could create inequality in the qualification for federal benefits, the decision states.
“Even if Congress had developed a newfound interest in promoting or maintaining consistency in the marital benefits that the federal government provides, DOMA is not a legitimate method for doing so,” Jones wrote. “To accomplish that consistency, DOMA operates to reexamine the states’ decisions concerning same-sex marriage. It sanctions some of those decisions and rejects others. But such a sweeping federal review in this arena does not square with our federalist system of government, which places matters at the ‘core’ of the domestic relations law exclusively within the province of the states.”
DOMA’s so-called efforts to conserve government resources failed to sway the court as well.
“An interest in conserving the public fisc alone, however, ‘can hardly justify the classification used in allocating those resources,'” Jones wrote, quoting Supreme Court precedent. “After all, excluding any ‘arbitrarily chosen group of individuals from a government program’ conserves government resources. With no other rational basis to support it, Congress’ s interest in economy does not suffice.”
Jones’ final quotation came from a 2011 decision in the DOMA challenge heard by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in San Francisco.