Attorney General Martha Coakley has asked the country's highest court to uphold a landmark federal ruling in Boston that granted equal rights to same-sex married couples in Massachusetts, urging the high court to officially strike down a federal law that defines marriage solely as a union of a man and a woman.
In a 27-page petition Tuesday, Coakley asked the US Supreme Court to uphold a federal appeals court decision in June that the federal Defense of Marriage Act discriminates against same-sex couples who are legally married, in violation of equal protection laws. That ruling has been stayed until the top court decides whether it will hear the case.
The attorney general petitioned the country's high court in support of a group of same-sex couples — represented by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders — who successfully argued before the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston that the law known as DOMA unfairly deprives them of federal benefits that would be granted to opposite-sex couples, even though their marriages were legally approved in Massachusetts.
"The Defense of Marriage Act is a discriminatory and unconstitutional law that harms thousands of families in Massachusetts and takes away our state's right to extend marriage equality to all couples," Coakley said in a statement. "It is our firm conviction that in order to truly achieve marriage equality all couples must enjoy the same rights and protection under both state and federal law."
The Appeals Court decision in June upheld a lower court decision that a key section of DOMA unfairly discriminates against legally approved same-sex couples by defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Coakley had also argued that DOMA unlawfully dictated the way the state could administer federally funded programs, forcing Massachusetts to discriminate against the type of marriages that it already approved. According to the federal act, for instance, under some circumstances, gay couples could be denied Medicaid and the state could not bury the same-sex spouse of a war veteran in federally funded cemeteries.
The Supreme Court, if it agrees to hear the case, would focus on the central question of whether DOMA violates equal protection laws for couples whose marriages are legal. But Coakley has also asked the court to consider whether Congress — by passing DOMA — infringed on the state's sovereignty rights to define marriage by dictating the way it administers its programs.
The US Department of Justice had refused to defend DOMA once it reached the federal appeals court level, yielding to a lower court decision that found that the law deserved a higher level of scrutiny under appropriate legal standards because it affected a group based on sexual preferences. However, the administration continues to enforce DOMA's restrictions on benefits, leading to other legal challenges. The act has been appealed in California, as well.
The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, appointed by the Republican majority of the US House of Representatives to defend DOMA, agreed to challenge the cases in the courts, and it asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the GLAD case in Massachusetts. Although the legal question is restricted to states that allow same-sex marriages, it could be the first time the nation's highest court tackles a question related to gay marriage.
According to the court's calendar, the court could decide whether to hear the case in September, and oral arguments could occur as early as next winter. GLAD is slated to submit arguments supporting the appeals court decision by Aug. 2.
"We think this case really shows how hard-working people are really affected by DOMA," said Vickie Henry, a senior staff attorney with GLAD. "We hope the harm of DOMA will be stopped."
Coakley filed a brief with the US Supreme Court in response to appeals filed by the US Department of Justice and a congressional group that asked the high court to overturn the lower court ruling.
Coakley argued that the decision by the First US Circuit Court of Appeals should stand because it protects the rights of same-sex couples in Massachusetts.
"The Defense of Marriage Act is a discriminatory and unconstitutional law that harms thousands of families in Massachusetts and takes away our state's right to extend marriage equality to all couples," Coakley said in a statement.
"It is our firm conviction that in order to truly achieve marriage equality all couples must enjoy the same rights and protection under both state and federal law. If the Supreme Court chooses to examine this case, we will look forward to once again making clear that DOMA and its pervasive discrimination is unconstitutional and should be ended."
The Boston appeals court ruled last month in favor of gay rights advocates who had argued that the DOMA violated equal protection rights by granting federal marriage benefits only to opposite-sex marriages, even though same-sex couples can legally marry in Massachusetts.
Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders brought the challenge on behalf of 17 couples who said they were being deprived of rights such as spousal death benefits.
Coakley had also argued that DOMA violated the state's sovereignty rights by restricting which couples would be eligible for programs that are federally funded but run by the state.
The appeals court did not make a decision on Coakley's argument, instead focusing on the equal protection claims that were raised by GLAD.
The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, appointed by the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, asked the US Supreme Court to hear the case. Though the legal question is restricted to states that allow same-sex marriages, it could be the first time the state's highest court tackles a question related to gay marriage.