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Two New Lawsuits Challenge DOMA

Two New Lawsuits Challenge DOMA

Two new lawsuits filed by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union challenge the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

The lawsuits follow a ruling from a federal judge in Massachusetts in July that struck down section 3 of DOMA, the part of the law limits marriage to one man and one woman for federal purposes. The Obama administration is appealing the decision in the case, Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management, which was brought by GLAD.

According to The New York Times, "The two new lawsuits, which involve plaintiffs from New York, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire, expand the attack geographically and also encompass more of the 1,138 federal laws and regulations that the Defense of Marriage Act potentially affects -- including the insurance costs amounting to several hundred dollars a month in the case of Ms. Pedersen and Ms. Meitzen, and a $350,0000 estate tax payment in the A.C.L.U. case."

Joanne Pedersen and Ann Meitzen are one of five married couples and a widower in the GLAD case filed Tuesday in federal district court in Connecticut. The case, Pedersen et al. v. Office of Personnel Management, addresses the plaintiffs' having been denied federal rights and protections because they are married to a same-sex partner. In New York the ACLU is suing on behalf of Edith Windsor, whose spouse, Thea Spyer, died last year. Although their Canadian marriage was recognized in New York, the women were not recognized as married by the federal government for estate tax purposes, and the case, Windsor v. USA, seeks to have the money returned.

In a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director for GLAD, said that the Pedersen case expanded the core equal protection argument of the Gill case to another federal judicial circuit while providing evidence of DOMA-induced harms in more areas of plaintiffs' lives.

"Our perspective is we want to keep the pressure on so we can put an end to the harm imposed by DOMA either in the court or in Congress," she said. "We are in a different federal judicial circuit here, so we have the chance to press once again that DOMA is blatantly unconstitutional."

Since Gill was filed in Massachusetts in 2009, three new states have recognized marriage equality, but Bonauto said that with every state-level victory, DOMA lurks in the background like a "time bomb" on the federal level.

"DOMA is a sort of time bomb, where couples rightfully celebrate their commitment in marriage, but months later, DOMA goes off and denies them some critical protection they counted on and needed," she said.

Among the multiple plaintiffs who spoke on the call was Jerry Passaro of Milford, the widower of Jerry Buckholz, who died in 2008. Passaro was denied pension benefits from Buckholz's job as a pharmaceutical chemist because of DOMA, which has resulted in the loss of $510 per month. He also has been denied Social Security death benefits.

According to the Times, a spokesperson for the Justice Department said the federal government would continue to defend DOMA in the two new cases, although President Barack Obama has expressed his support for repeal of the law. Bonauto said she did not know how the Justice Department would proceed in the Pedersen case, but if it were to reach the Supreme Court, it would likely happen no earlier than 2013, and it could be combined with the Gillcase depending on the timing.

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Julie Bolcer