Massachusetts Files Suit Against US Over Gay Marriage Benefits

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has filed a lawsuit against the US government in Federal Court seeking Federal marriage benefits for the approximately 16,000 gay and lesbian couples who have legally wed in Massachusetts over the past five years. The state is challenging the constitutionality of the Clinton-era Federal 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), arguing that the law denies "essential rights and protections" to same-sex couples who have married since Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to legalize gay weddings back in 2004. The suit mirrors a similar suit filed by gay and lesbian couples back in March.

"In enacting DOMA, Congress overstepped its authority, undermined states' efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and codified an animus toward gay and lesbian people," the state's 32-page complaint said. More from Reuters:

The state is challenging the constitutionality of the federal 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, saying the law denies "essential rights and protections" to same-sex couples who have married since Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to legalize gay weddings in 2004.

The federal law interferes with the state's "sovereign authority to define and regulate marriage," according to the suit filed in federal court in Boston. It calls the law "overreaching and discriminatory."

The suit is the latest skirmish over gay marriage in the U.S. federal court system after handful of political filmmakers led by a Democratic consultant crafted a gay rights challenge in May that they hope will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

It also follows a separate lawsuit filed by a group of married gay couples in Massachusetts in March that also challenged the same portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.

Although Massachusetts and five other U.S. states have authorized gay marriage, same-sex couples who are legally married in those states cannot access the federal protections and programs granted to straight married couples.

The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, denies gay and lesbian couples access to more than 1,000 federal programs and legal protections, gay rights advocates say.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who filed the suit, cited several benefits denied gay couples, including federal income tax credits, employment and retirement benefits, health insurance coverage, and Social Security payments.

"We view all married persons equally," Coakley told a news conference.

Your thoughts? Is it preferable to have DOMA overturned in the courts or by Congress? Another question to consider is how will the Obama DOJ respond?

Update [2009-7-8 22:35:43 by Charles Lemos]: The story in the Boston Globe.

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The LGBT Event at the White House

The President and the First Lady today hosted a group of LBGT leaders at the White House. Newsweek's Katie Connolly covered the event:

The First Couple hosted a celebration honoring LGBT pride month in the East Room this afternoon. The event comes amid rising tensions between the Administration and the gay community, who are disappointed at the lack of attention to their issues so far this year. For the most part, Obama didn't mince words. He described the gay rights "struggle" as "difficult", "painful", and "heartbreaking". He likened the movement to prior civil rights battles, drawing parallels with "all those in our history who've been denied the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; who've been told that the full blessings and opportunities of this country were closed to them." He told the invite only group that he understood their frustrations, and it wasn't for him to advise patience, "any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago."

After listing the steps his Adminstration has taken to further gay rights - the memo about extending partner benefits to federal employees, calling on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, meeting with Matthew Shephard's mother as part of a strategy to address hate crimes and repealing the HIV travelers ban - Obama turned to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And this is where his words when from unambiguous to murky. Although he acknowledged that "preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security", his plan for ending DADT was unclear. He's apparently working with the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs to develop some sort of strategy, but he didn't give a deadline or outline a process. The upshot? This doesn't really advance the repeal much beyond a campaign promise. There is a bright side for gay rights activists though. If you read between the lines, DADT will be likely be repealed before the next election.

The President received a strong applause after saying that "We've been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."

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Moving Foward with Uniting American Families Act

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is moving forward with a bill that would allow American citizens and legal immigrants to seek legal residency in the United States for their same-sex partners, just as spouses now petition for foreign-born husbands and wives. Reintroduced this past February, the act is entitled the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA, H.R. 1024, S. 424). While the UAFA has been introduced in four successive Congressional sessions, the bill has languished. Still during last session the bill had 199 sponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate.

The UAFA bill, formerly titled as the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, was first introduced in 2000 by Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), then again in 2001, 2003, 2005 (under the title "Uniting American Families Act"), and again in 2007. The bills were referred to the House Judiciary Committee, without progress. In the latest push for equal immigration rights, Congressman Nadler and Senator Leahy have co-sponsored the Uniting American Families Act of 2009 in both the House and Senate. The Administration has signaled its support.

Tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee that Senator Leahy chairs will hold the first congressional hearings on the Uniting American Families Act. The Judiciary Committee is to hear testimony from Shirley Tan, 43, the mother of twin 12-year-old boys who are United States citizens because they were born here. Ms. Tan has raised them with her partner of 20 years, Jay Mercado, who like Ms. Tan is from the Philippines. Although Ms. Mercado became a naturalized American citizen in 1998, she has not been able to gain legal immigration status for Ms. Tan.

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Nevada Legislature Overrides Gibbons' Veto on Domestic Partnerships

As I reported last week, GOP Governor Jim Gibbons vetoed a bill that would have given domestic partners, whether gay or straight, many of the rights and benefits that Nevada offers to married couples. The Governor had based his decision that Senate Bill Bill 283 which would have extended to domestic partners "nearly all of the rights, protections, benefits, and privileges currently available to married persons" was of "suspect constitutionality." I am now happy to report that Nevada legislature has overridden the Governor's veto and the measure now becomes law on October 1. While the vote in both chambers was largely on party lines with Democrats voting to override and Republicans voting to sustain, one Republican, Assemblyman Ed Goedhart of Amargosa Valley, backed the override calling it "the right thing to do."

More from the Las Vegas Journal Review:

Only a handful of spectators watched Sunday night as the Assembly voted 28-14 to override Gov. Jim Gibbons' veto of a bill that establishes a domestic partnership law in Nevada.

That vote, with the state Senate's 14-7 rejection of the veto Saturday, makes Senate Bill 283 a law that takes effect on Oct. 1.

Under the new law, same-sex and opposite-sex couples can go to the secretary of state's office, sign a registry, pay a fee and secure a domestic partnership contract that essentially gives them the same legal rights and responsibilities as married couples.

Domestic partnerships, or civil unions, are not the same as same-sex marriages, which are now legal in five states. A constitutional amendment approved by Nevada voters in 2002 specifies that a marriage can be between a man and a woman only.

Domestic partners do not need to solemnize their unions under the law but are free to choose to do so if they want. Employers are not required to offer medical and other benefits to domestic partner couples but may do so if they wish.

"I'm immensely pleased that the veto of the governor has been overridden," said state Sen. David Parks, the sponsor of the bill. "It's a great day for fairness and equality in Nevada."

Unlike the emotional debate that took place in the state Senate, only Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, made a speech on SB283 in the quiet Assembly chambers.

"This is the most important civil rights legislation we've had in all my years in the Legislature," Leslie said. "It is an issue of fairness for our citizens."

Tod Story, a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Las Vegas, expects thousands of couples will become legal domestic partners. The law allows couples, gay or straight, to make decisions about wills, inheritances and health care for each other.

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Nevada Gov. Gibbons Vetoes Domestic Partnership Bill

On Monday, the Republican Governor of Nevada, Jim Gibbons, vetoed a bill that would have given domestic partners, whether gay or straight, many of the rights and benefits that Nevada offers to married couples. The Governor based his decision that Senate Bill Bill 283 which would have extended to domestic partners "nearly all of the rights, protections, benefits, and privileges currently available to married persons" was of "suspect constitutionality." In the Governor's view because the voters have determined that the rights of marriage should only apply to married couples that therefore only the voters should be able to determine if those rights should equally apply to domestic partners.

The measure would have prohibited discrimination against domestic partners, and given them the same community property and debt rights as married couples but Governor Gibbons holds that domestic partners can sign private contracts to accomplish many of the goals of the law. It is unclear whether the Nevada Legislature can override the veto. Still, Harrah's Entertainment has called for an override. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the casino giant "pointed to an estimated $700 billion in buying power among potential lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers." The bill also has support from the powerful Nevada Resort Association.

The full statement from Governor Jim Gibbons is here (pdf.)

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