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New cases challenge Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

Joanne Pedersen, left, and Ann Meitzen are planning to sue because federal law does not recognize their Connecticut marriage. Photo by Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

State and Federal laws often come into conflict, and gay marriage is a prime example of how confusing that confluence can be. Couples that are married in states where it is/was legal (5 states plus DC) may get all the state benefits to which they are entitled, but many benefits are given at the Federal level…which is where things get sticky…but not in a good way.

One big example of this is health insurance, which is a tough subject to tackle in itself. The New York Times reports on two cases where plaintiffs are suing the government in an effort to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples.

They are plaintiffs in one of two lawsuits being filed by the legal group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a gay rights legal organization based in Boston, and by the American Civil Liberties Union.

A similar challenge by the gay rights legal group resulted in a ruling in July from a federal judge in Boston that the act is unconstitutional. The Obama administration is appealing that decision.

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.

The civil liberties union filed suit on behalf of Edith S. Windsor, whose spouse, Thea C. Spyer, died last year of aortic stenosis. The two women, New Yorkers who had been together for 44 years, married in Toronto in 2007. New York officially recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other states. Had the two been man and wife, there would have been no federal estate tax to pay.

“It’s just so unfair,” said Ms. Windsor, who is 81.

It’s hard to say what will happen in the current atmosphere. We have a very divided system right now and though public opinion seems to be slowly shifting towards gay acceptance it is still taboo for a Democratic president to support gay marriage. President Obama has called for the repeal of the DOMA, saying it is discriminatory. But he has also said he supports civil unions but not same-sex marriage. Last month, however, at a meeting with liberal bloggers, he said he had been thinking “a lot” about that position, saying, “Attitudes evolve, including mine.”

So here’s to another issue that has no clear outcome and likely will not for awhile. Keep fighting the good fight.

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