John Lantigua and Lona O’Connor , Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
When Palm Beach County gay rights leader Tony Plakas heard that a federal appeals court had struck down the Defense of Marriage Act on Thursday, he said he was pleased but not surprised.
The 1996 law — known as DOMA — banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage and defined marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled the law is unconstitutional because it deprives same-sex couples of rights granted to couples of the opposite sex. The court’s ruling will almost certainly now go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
”What happened today was inevitable,” said Plakas, CEO of Compass, the Lake Worth gay and lesbian community center. “This is an evolution. There is a basic inequality here.”
Meanwhile in Orlando, John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which spearheaded the campaign to pass a 2008 Florida law banning same-sex marriage, noted that the court’s ruling did not apply to certain central tenets of DOMA.
Stemberger said DOMA protects states that don’t believe in same-sex marriage from having to recognize such marriages performed in other states. The three-judge panel didn’t rule on that part of the law.
”The court only implicated the issue of benefits,” Stemberger said.
The court also wasn’t asked to address whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.
What the court found unconstitutional was that the law deprives gay and lesbian couples of rights other couples enjoy, including the right to file joint tax returns. Plaintiff Jonathan Knight, 32, claimed the federal law cost him and his partner, Marlin Nabors, who wed in Massachusetts in 2006, extra money because they had to file separately.
”For me, it’s more just about having equality and not having a system of first- and second-class marriages,” Knight said Thursday.
The court also said DOMA interfered with the rights of states that have approved same-sex marriage.
”Congress’ denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest,” the court ruled.
The ruling of the court was unanimous. Of the three judges, two were appointed by Republican presidents and one by a Democrat.
Stemberger said the narrow issues on which the Supreme Court would probably be asked to rule would not endanger the laws and state constitutional amendments adopted by Florida and 31 other states that outlaw same-sex marriage.
Stemberger and other opponents of same-sex marriage have raised the possibility that if DOMA were struck down, they would push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would recognize marriage as only being between a man and woman.
But he said Thursday that the court’s narrow ruling might not necessitate that kind of effort.
Last year, President Obama announced the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday the appeals court ruling is “in concert with the president’s views.”
Obama, who once opposed gay marriage, declared his personal support on May 9. Carney wouldn’t say whether the government would actively seek to have DOMA overturned if the case goes before the Supreme Court.
After Obama said he would no longer defend DOMA, GOP House Speaker John Boehner convened the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to defend it.
Paul Clement, a Washington attorney who defended the law for the Advisory Group before the court, argued that Congress had a rational basis for passing it in 1996, when opponents worried that states would be forced to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. The group said Congress wanted to preserve a traditional and uniform definition of marriage and has the power to define terms used in federal statutes to distribute federal benefits.
Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, disagrees. He celebrated Thursday.
”It’s an excellent day for gay and lesbian Americans,” Hoch said.
The Palm Beach County government has removed many barriers to gay partners’ rights, he said. “But we still have a long way to go,” he said. “I never thought in 1988, when I started, that 20-something years later we’d still be fighting for this.”
Hoch wondered whether proponents of DOMA would take the legal risk of forcing the gay marriage issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, since lower courts have been fairly consistent in upholding a number of aspects of gay rights.
”The sooner it gets to the Supreme Court, the happier I will be,” Hoch said. “Let it move forward and let’s get rid of this impediment to equal rights.”