BOSTON (CN) – Massachusetts claims Congress overstepped its constitutional authority when it enacted the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. The Commonwealth claims that Congress abandoned a states’ rights precedent that had been in place since the founding of the Republic, undermined the state’s efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and codified animus toward gay and lesbian people by adopting a definition of marriage that is discriminatory on its face.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley specifically takes issue with Section 3 of the Act, which she says “creates an unprecedented federal definition of marriage limited to a union between one man and one woman.”
Despite Coakley’s overt criticism of Congress, she named members of the Executive Branch as defendants: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, their secretaries Kathleen Sebelius and Eric Shinseki. The final defendant is the United States of America.
Since becoming the first state allow same-sex couples to marry, more that 16,000 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts. The state maintains that far from threatening “traditional” marriage, as defined by Section 3, extending the same right to gay and lesbian couples has strengthened the security and stability of families.
Coakley says that same-sex couples in Massachusetts are being denied essential rights and protections because the Act interferes with the Commonwealth’s sovereign authority to define and regulate the marriage of its citizens.
In doing so, Congress rejected the historic practice of deferring to each state’ s definition of marriage and contravened the constitutional designation of exclusive authority to the states – namely, that defining marital status was the exclusive prerogative of the states and an essential aspect of each state’s sovereignty, Coakley says.
She adds that Section 3 of the Act unlawfully places conditions on the Commonwealth’s participation in certain federally funded programs by requiring it to disregard marriages validly solemnized under Massachusetts law.
Finally, she says, Section 3 abandons the policy, codified under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, of deferring to a state’s definition of marital status as a marker of eligibility for rights and protections under federal law.
The Defense of Marriage Act precludes same-sex spouses from a wide range of protections that directly affect them and their families, including federal income tax credits, employment and retirement benefits, health insurance coverage, and Social Security benefits, the complaint states.
The lawsuit does not challenge Section 2 of the Act, which provides that states shall not be required to recognized marriages between individuals of the same sex that are solemnized in other jurisdictions.
Instead, Massachusetts seeks declaratory and injunctive relief for the narrow purpose of enabling it to define marriage within its own boundaries.