A federal appeals court in Boston today upheld a lower court ruling that called the key section of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” unconstitutional. Section 3 of DOMA bans the federal government from recognizing legal marriages between people of the same sex, meaning that it willfully discriminates against a set of married people when it comes to Social Security benefits, joint-filing tax breaks, military spousal benefits and immigration. When DOMA was passed in 1996 no states allowed gay and lesbian couple to marry – its provisions were purely theoretical. Today, marriage equality exists in six states and the District of Columbia, and DOMA actively harms thousands of married Americans – 100,000 couples, according to the court.
In its decision concluding that DOMA violates the Constitution, the unanimous First Circuit panel – two out of three of whom were nominated by Republican presidents – was cautious. The panel said that under First Circuit precedent DOMA doesn’t trigger “heightened scrutiny” – a tougher standard for the federal government to meet. It also declined to address any arguments based on the premise that lesbians and gays have a constitutional right to marry (as opposed to having their existing marriages recognized by the federal government).
But the court was clear that Section 3 of DOMA does not meet the “rational basis” test for upholding a federal law that denies equal protection to a group long subject to discrimination – in other words, there’s just no good reason for DOMA to do the harm that it does.
The court looked at several justificiations offered for the law by DOMA’s supporters and found that each comes up short. Supporters say DOMA will save the federal government money (reports say that it actually costs the government money…and saving money isn’t a good enough reason for legal discrimination in the first place); that allowing lesbians and gays to marry harms children (it doesn’t, and Section 3 of DOMA doesn’t affect these couples’ rights to raise children anyway); and just plain moral disapproval (Supreme Court precedent says this isn’t enough of a reason). And finally, the court takes on the constant argument of opponents of same-sex marriage: that somehow gay couples getting married will harm the institution of marriage for everyone else:
Although the House Report is filled with encomia to heterosexual marriage, DOMA does not increase benefits to opposite-sex couples--whose marriages may in any event be childless, unstable or both--or explain how denying benefits to same-sex couples will reinforce heterosexual marriage. Certainly, the denial will not affect the gender choices of those seeking marriage. This is not merely a matter of poor fit of remedy to perceived problem, but a lack of any demonstrated connection between DOMA's treatment of same-sex couples and its asserted goal of strengthening the bonds and benefits to society of heterosexual marriage.
This is the crux of any number of court decisions that have struck down barriers to marriage equality. The main reason given for many laws that seek to deny marriage rights to gays and lesbians is that same-sex marriage will somehow weaken marriage for everybody else. It’s a claim that just doesn’t hold water.
The First Circuit panel did, however, go out of its way to defend DOMA’s supporters even while rejecting the law.
The District Court judge whose ruling the appeals court upheld declared that DOMA was motivated by “irrational prejudice” toward gays and lesbians. The First Circuit explicitly refuses to go there, instead stating that while that may have been true for some supporters, others were motivated instead by what it characterizes as the non-biased wish to “preserve the heritage of marriage as traditionally defined over centuries of Western civilization.” Under recent Supreme Court precedent, they write, the wish to uphold tradition isn’t a good enough one for denying equal protection. But the Supreme Court can change that if it wants:
In reaching our judgment, we do not rely upon the charge that DOMA's hidden but dominant purpose was hostility to homosexuality. The many legislators who supported DOMA acted from a variety of motives, one central and expressed aim being to preserve the heritage of marriage as traditionally defined over centuries of Western civilization. Preserving this institution is not the same as "mere moral disapproval of an excluded group," and that is singularly so in this case given the range of bipartisan support for the statute.
The opponents of section 3 point to selected comments from a few individual legislators; but the motives of a small group cannot taint a statute supported by large majorities in both Houses and signed by President Clinton. Traditions are the glue that holds society together, and many of our own traditions rest largely on belief and familiarity--not on benefits firmly provable in court. The desire to retain them is strong and can be honestly held. For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute. This judicial deference has a distinguished lineage, including such figures as Justice Holmes, the second Justice Harlan, and Judges Learned Hand and Henry Friendly. But Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.
Recognizing that the Supreme Court will likely review its reasoning, the court stayed the decision, so it will not go into effect yet.
The National Journal today reports on the rocky progress of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which for the first time this year has become an object of partisan dispute. Why? The Democratic-backed reauthorization includes new protections for LGBT people, Native Americans and undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence. That bill passed in the Senate despite 31 no votes – all from Republican men.
In response, the House GOP put together an alternate bill that not only axes the new protections recommended by Democrats but eliminates some protections that are already in the bill. Yesterday, the White House threatened to veto the House bill.
Now, the House GOP is playing the victim, accusing Democrats of trying to make them look bad by including things like help for gays and lesbians and undocumented immigrants in the bill:
The Senate version would expand current protections to gay, bisexual, or transgender victims of domestic abuse, subject non-Native American suspects of domestic abuse occurring on reservations to the jurisdiction of tribal courts, and increase temporary visas for victims who are undocumented immigrants. The House bill was amended on Tuesday to allow illegal immigrant “U visa” recipients to receive permanent residence if the perpetrators of the crimes against them are aliens, are convicted of the crimes, and are deported to the visa holders’ home countries.
But Republican leaders have accused Democrats of adding those hot-button issues to intentionally create a fight for political advantage—and lash out at House Republicans for waging a “war against women.” House GOP leaders—including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia—say they want to stay away from “issues that divide us.”
That’s right. House Republican leaders – who threatened to shut down the government to stop Planned Parenthood funding, who won’t even consider cutting tax loopholes for giant corporations, who continually go out of their way to express their opposition to equal rights for gays and lesbians – are now worried about “issues that divide us.” Like, apparently, protecting gay people, Native Americans and immigrants from domestic abuse.
One “issue that divides us” apparently didn’t turn off some House Republicans. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia offered an amendment to the bill that, according to the National Journal, would provide “help for convicted domestic abusers who want their gun-ownership rights back.” That one, at least, didn’t make it past the Rules Committee.
Virginia’s House of Delegates yesterday rejected the nomination of a state prosecutor to serve as a judge – just because he is openly gay.
Tracy Thorne-Begland, a Navy veteran who has been a prosecutor in Richmond for 12 years, enjoyed bipartisan support in the House of Delegates until, at the last minute, he came under attack from far-right Delegate Bob Marshall and the right-wing Family Foundation. The Richmond Times Dispatch reports:
A late-hour lobbying offensive by social conservatives prevailed in the House of Delegates early Tuesday to torpedo bipartisan support for the judicial nomination of an openly gay Richmond prosecutor.
After a lengthy discussion, the GOP-controlled House of Delegates defeated the nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland, Richmond's chief deputy commonwealth's attorney. He would have been the first openly gay judge elected in Virginia.
Thorne-Begland received 33 votes, and 31 delegates voted against him. He needed a majority of the 100-member House -- 51 votes -- to secure the judgeship.
In an email blast to supporters late last week, the Christian conservative Family Foundation questioned Thorne-Begland's fitness for the bench given his support for gay marriage, which is not legal in Virginia. Thorne-Begland and his partner, Michael, live together and are raising twins.
Marshall, too had charged that Thorne-Begland pursued an "aggressive activist homosexual agenda.
Opponents of gay rights, in their effort to keep LGBT people out of the public square, have in the past few years gone after several openly gay judges and judicial nominees. Supporters of California’s discriminatory Prop 8 tried to get a federal judge’s ruling against them thrown out because the judge is openly gay. Another judge issued an epic takedown of their argument.
A number of Republican delegates in Virginia, as well as the state’s socially conservative governor Bob McDonnell backed Thorne-Begland’s nomination until Del. Marshall began his onslaught.
Del. Marshall is the one who claimed in 2010 that disabled children are God's punishment for abortion. On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – a policy that Thorne-Begland worked to end after his distinguished career in the Navy – Marshall said openly gay troops would distract their fellow servicemembers: "It's a distraction when I'm on the battlefield and have to concentrate on the enemy 600 yards away and I'm worried about this guy whose got eyes on me." Once Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, Del Marshall tried to get gay Virginians banned from the state’s National Guard.
Marshall later told the Washington Post that he objected to Thorne-Begland’s brave coming out in protest of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:
I would guess — law of averages — we’ve probably nominated people who have homosexual inclinations,” Marshall said. Marshall faulted Thorne-Begland for coming out as a gay Naval officer on “Nightline” two decades ago to challenge the military’s now-repealed ban on gays openly serving in the military. He said that amounted not just to insubordination, but to a waste of taxpayer dollars, since it resulted in his dismissal from the Navy. “The Navy spent $1 million training him,” Marshall said. “That’s cheating the country out of the investment in him.”
In the end, it was Del. Marshall’s arguments that won out in the effort to halt the career of a dedicated Virginia public servant.
Today, President Obama at last acknowledged that he personally supports the right to marry for gay and lesbian Americans. Although the president maintains his position that marriage laws should be decided on a state-by-state basis, his personal statement provides a huge boost to the marriage equality movement. At a time when over half of Americans want full marriage rights for gays and lesbians, the endorsement of a sitting president is a meaningful signal of progress.
Sixteen years ago, in May 1996, People For the American Way became one of the first national groups to endorse marriage equality and vow to work toward it. In a note to members of the organization’s board, which was to vote on the issue, PFAW’s staff wrote that the Right had started to use the “marriage issue” to “polarize Americans” – a strategy that had its first major victory in the passage of DOMA later that year.
Despite all the progress that has been made for LGBT equality in the past sixteen years, the 1996 memo could have been written yesterday:
In recent years, People For the American Way has come to be a very important voice in the ongoing effort to rid America of discrimination and prejudice against gay men and lesbians.
We have done that over the years for the simple reason that it’s the right thing to do. Opposing discrimination and fostering respect and appreciation for diversity are core values for People For the American Way. These are precisely the values under attack in this latest campaign.
Of course, the marriage issue has very real implications for the everyday lives of millions of Americans. In the area of health care for example, existing marriage laws allow a spouse to make critical decisions for an incapacitated spouse; not so for unmarried couples wou haven’t gone through the necessary legal steps. In many hospitals, the right to visit patients in an intensive care unit is limited to immediate family; gay and lesbian partners – lacking the legal status of family – are often excluded, to the great detriment of both partners. In addition, enormous economic consequences flow from the inability of gay men and lesbians to marry, including significant tax and inheritance benefits.
The lack of legal recognition of gay and lesbian families is of particular concern when children are involved, since the children are deprived of the protection of a legal relationship with the non-biological parent and the ability of that parent to make important decisions for them in any number of settings, including schools and hospitals. And if the biological parent dies, the children may well be taken away from their other parent, who has no legal relationship with them.
Sixteen years later, marriage discrimination continues to hurt gay and lesbian American and their families. That a sitting president has publicly acknowledged the impact of that discrimination is very powerful. We hope that soon the injustice we outlined in 1996 will be hopelessly out of date.
Last week, in response to pressure from the Religous Right -- much of which was documented by PFAW's Right Wing Watch -- the Romney campaign forced out an openly gay spokesman who had been on the job for less than two weeks.
While the Romney campaign attempted to deny that right-wing pressure led to the spokesman's resignation, news reports suggested that that is exactly what happened.
But Romney's effort to appease the anti-gay right didn't even work. Right Wing Watch caught a clip of the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer, the leading critic of the candidate's decision to hire an openly gay spokesperson, criticizing Romney for listening to him. "How is he going to stand up to North Korea if he can be pushed around by a yokel like me?" Fischer demanded.
Earlier this week, Lawrence O'Donnell played and discussed the Fischer clip on his show. Watch:
North Carolina voters today are casting their ballots on Amendment One, an extreme measure that would write discrimination into the state’s consitution and potentially take away important protections for all unmarried couples, gay and straight.
The amendment states that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic union that shall be valid or recognized” in North Carolina. It would not only deal another blow to gay and lesbian couples in the state, who are already prohibited by law from marrying, but endangers protections for all unmarried couples, including domestic violence protections and health insurance coverage.
The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families is running a handful of powerful ads showing Amendment One’s potential devastating impact. Here are a couple:
President Bill Clinton also recorded a robocall on behalf of the anti-Amendment One campaign. You can listen to it here.
North Carolina voters can find your polling place here.
We noted on Friday that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, working with a Republican-led state legislature, had taken the extraordinary step of repealing the state’s enforcement mechanism for pay discrimination lawsuits.
But it turns out that’s not all. Daily Kos points out that along with equal pay repeal, Gov. Walker signed what reads like a wish list of bills from the Religious Right:
The first bill bans abortion coverage through policies obtained through a health insurance exchange, set to be created under the federal health care reform law starting in 2014. The only exceptions would be in cases of rape, incest or medical necessity. [...]
The second bill requires a woman seeking an abortion to undergo an exam and consult with a doctor alone, away from her friends and family. The doctor must determine whether someone is pressuring the woman into the procedure. Doctors who break the law could be charged with a felony. [...]
The sex education bill requires teachers in schools that offer sex education to stress abstinence as the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The bill also declares that sex education teachers do not have to address contraception. That's a dramatic shift from current state law, which requires teachers to instruct students on birth control options.
And it doesn’t end there. Walker has now decided to stop defending a law that gives gay and lesbian couples the right to visit each other in the hospital, a law that an anti-gay group is disputing in court.
That’s right. After making it harder for women to sue for pay discrimination, setting up demeaning hurdles for women seeking legal abortions, and giving the go-ahead for ineffective sex ed, Gov. Walker is going out of his way to try to keep same-sex couples from visiting each other in the hospital.
Is this the governor’s “jobs” agenda?