BOSTON (AP) | Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage, sued the U.S. government Wednesday over a federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) interferes with the right of Massachusetts to define and regulate marriage as it sees fit, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said. The 1996 law denies federal recognition of gay marriage and gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Massachusetts is the first state to challenge the federal law. Its lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boston, argues the act “constitutes an overreaching and discriminatory federal law.” It says the approximately 16,000 same-sex couples who have married in Massachusetts since the state began performing gay marriages in 2004 are being unfairly denied federal benefits given to heterosexual couples.
“They are entitled to equal treatment under the laws regardless of whether they are gay or straight,” Mrs. Coakley said at a news conference.
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Iowa have legalized gay marriage. Gay marriage opponents in Maine said Wednesday they had collected enough signatures to put the state’s pending law on the November ballot for a possible override.
The lawsuit focuses on the section of the law that creates a federal definition of marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”
Before the law was passed, Mrs. Coakley said, the federal government recognized that defining marital status was the “exclusive prerogative of the states.” Now, because of the U.S. law’s definition of marriage, same-sex couples are denied access to benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including federal income tax credits, employment benefits, retirement benefits, health insurance coverage and Social Security payments, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit also argues that the federal law requires the state to violate the constitutional rights of its citizens by treating married heterosexual couples and married same-sex couples differently when determining eligibility for Medicaid benefits and when determining whether the spouse of a veteran can be buried in a Massachusetts veterans’ cemetery.
“In enacting DOMA, Congress overstepped its authority, undermined states’ efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people,” the lawsuit states.
The defendants named in the suit include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the federal government.
Brian Camenker, leader of MassResistance, a group opposed to gay marriage, criticized Mrs. Coakley for challenging the federal law. “The federal government has a perfectly legal right to define marriage,” he said.