A federal judge in Washington State has backed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The decision, made public Tuesday, is the first to address the constitutionality of the federal law, which defines marriage as a "legal union between one man and one woman." Two American women, Lee and Ann Kandu, were married in British Columbia and filed a joint bankruptcy petition in Tacoma a short time later. Their petition was opposed by the Justice Department on the grounds that the federal marriage law prohibited it. Federal bankruptcy judge Paul B. Snyder found that the bankruptcy code allows spouses to file joint petitions, noting, however, that the marriage law specifies that spouse refers only to a person of the opposite sex. Snyder found that gays and lesbians have no fundamental right to marriage and that the 1996 law does not violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by allowing members of the opposite sex to wed but not members of the same sex.
According to The New York Times, the decision is not binding on other courts, and the question of the constitutionality of the marriage law is likely to give rise to many decisions in coming years. The Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, has two significant provisions. One says that only heterosexual married couples can qualify for rights and benefits under federal programs that take marital status into account. A report by the General Accounting Office in 1997 said more than 1,000 federal laws were affected. The second significant provision of the marriage law allows states to decline to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. That aspect of the law was not an issue in Tacoma. Susan Sommer, a lawyer with gay rights advocacy group Lambda Legal, said Judge Snyder should have been more skeptical. ''The judge applied a sort of rubber-stamp approach,'' Sommer told the Times. "There is a fundamental right to marry that applies without exception to all people. You can't dole out fundamental rights only to some.''