Editorial: Redefining Marriage

Posted on nytimes.com:

"For 14 years, as states, courts and many Americans began to change their minds on the subject, the federal government has clung to its official definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman. On Thursday, a federal judge in Massachusetts finally stood up and said there was never a rational basis for that definition. Though we are a little wary of one path Judge Joseph L. Tauro took to declare the definition unconstitutional, the outcome he reached is long overdue.

"The definition is contained in the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. At the time, there was no legal marriage for same-sex couples in the United States, but now five states and the District of Columbia issue licenses to all couples. Because of the federal law, thousands of couples in those states cannot receive the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples, including Social Security survivor payments and spousal burials in national military cemeteries.

"There were two cases that came before Judge Tauro on this subject, allowing him to arrive at the same conclusion in two different ways. In one case, brought by Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general, the judge said the marriage act exceeded Congress’s powers and infringed on the state’s right to regulate marriage. This does not appear to be a legitimate basis for overturning the act. Many of the biggest federal social programs — including the new health care law — deal with marriages and families, as the Yale law professor Jack Balkin noted on Thursday, and states should not be given the right to supersede them.

"The judge made a better argument in the other case, brought by a gay rights group, that the marriage definition violates the equal-protection provisions of the Constitution. There is no rational basis for discriminating against same-sex couples, he ruled, discrediting the reasons stated by lawmakers in 1996, including the encouragement of 'responsible procreation' and traditional notions of marriage and morality. In this argument, he was helped by the Obama administration’s obligatory but half-hearted defense of the law, which since last year no longer supports Congress’s stated reasons.

"Courts should generally give Congress wide deference in writing laws, but should not be afraid to examine them when challenged, to make sure they serve a legitimate purpose. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed and signed as an election-year wedge issue, and the brief debate leading up to it was full of bigoted attacks against homosexuality as 'depraved' and 'immoral.' One congressman said gay marriage would 'devalue the love between a man and a woman.' Laws passed on this kind of basis deserve to be upended, and we hope Judge Tauro’s equal-protection opinion, which, for now, applies only to Massachusetts, is upheld on appeal."

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