BOSTON — Gay-rights activists are suing the U. S. government, claiming a federal act that forbids recognition of gay marriage is unconstitutional because it denies access to federal benefits that other married couples receive, such as pensions, health insurance and tax benefits.
Gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but the federal Defense of Marriage Act forbids U.S. government recognition of same-sex married couples, which makes them, for instance, ineligible to file joint tax returns.
There are about a dozen plaintiffs, including the widower of former U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds, the first openly gay member of the House of Representatives.
In the case of plaintiff Mary Ritchie, of Massachusetts, she and her spouse say they have paid nearly $15,000 more in taxes than they would have if they had been able to file joint federal returns. They can file state tax returns as a couple.
“It saddens us because we love our country,” Ritchie said. “We are taxpayers. We live just like anyone else in our community. We do everything just like every other family, like every other married couple, and we are treated like less than that.”
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court in Boston by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the antidiscrimination group that brought a successful legal challenge leading to Massachusetts becoming the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage in 2004. Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire allow civil unions.
Californians voted in November to overturn a court ruling that allowed gay marriage, but the state still offers domestic partnerships that guarantee the same rights as marriage. Hawaii is considering a bill that will allow same-sex civil unions.
The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was enacted by Congress in 1996 when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage and opponents worried that other states would be forced to recognize such marriages. The new lawsuit challenges only the portion of the law that prevents the federal government from affording certain benefits to same-sex couples.
President Barack Obama has pledged to work to repeal DOMA and reverse the Department of Defense policy that prevents openly gay people from serving in the military.
In August, Obama told Philadelphia Gay News, “DOMA was an unnecessary encroachment by the federal government in an area traditionally reserved for the state. I think that it was primarily sent as a message to score political points instead of working through these difficult issues … I’m sympathetic to the political pressures involved, but I think that we need to bring it to a close … ”
At the time, Obama indicated that he preferred a legislative solution over a court challenge.
Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s Civil Rights Project director, said the lawsuit is the first major challenge to the section of the law that denies same-sex couples access to more than 1,000 federal programs and legal protections in which marriage is a factor.
All the plaintiffs are from Massachusetts and have marriages that are recognized by the state. They include a U.S. Postal Service employee who wasn’t allowed to add her spouse to her health-insurance plan; a federal government retiree who was denied health insurance for his spouse; three widowers who were denied death benefits for funeral expenses; and a man who has been denied a passport bearing his married name.
“This law is an absolute intrusion into an area that states have governed for centuries — marriage,” Bonauto said.
In Hara’s case, he was denied any portion of Studds’ $114,000 pension after the Democratic congressman died in 2006. The two married in 2004 after being together for 14 years.
Defendants in the lawsuit are the United States of America and several federal agencies, which are being represented by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Obviously, we are going to take a look at it and make a determination as to how the government would ultimately respond after we review it,” DOJ spokesperson Charles Miller said.
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, said the lawsuit is a “plausible challenge” to DOMA.
“It’s a question of whether Congress oversteps its bounds and engages in irrational discrimination when it draws a line in terms of concrete benefits for individuals who are otherwise eligible, simply because the marriages they have entered involve same-sex couples rather than opposite-sex couples,” he said.