Gay marriage is currently one of the fastest-changing areas of family law in the United States. New Jersey is one of several states that recognize civil unions between same-sex couples. Civil unions afford same-sex couples all the same benefits available to married couple under state law.
However, federal benefits, including joint federal income tax filing, are not included under civil unions. This is because the Defense of Marriage Act, which was enacted by the federal government in 1996, defines marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.
A lot has changed since DOMA was enacted. Eight states now permit gay marriage and President Barack Obama came out in support of gay marriage earlier this month. Additionally, the Obama administration announced last year that DOMA would no longer be defended because of its unconstitutionality.
Most recently, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit found DOMA to be unconstitutional. The panel of three judges held on Thursday that the law discriminates against gay couples who are legally married in states that recognize it by denying them federal benefits.
The case was heard in Massachusetts, which became the first state to allow same-sex marriage in 2004. Plaintiffs in the case were seven married same-sex couples and three widowers, all of who had been denied filing joint federal tax returns or collecting Social Security survivor benefits.
The Court of Appeals didn’t take a stand on gay marriage itself but reasoned that DOMA stands in the way of states deciding on their own whether to permit same-sex unions, which they are permitted to do under federalism.
It is likely that the United States Supreme Court will take up the issue next. The nation’s highest court has the authority to overturn the law if it similarly decides that DOMA is unconstitutional.
Source: Reuters, “Court says marriage law discriminates against gay couples,” Scott Malone and Terry Baynes, May 31, 2012