DOMA: What Will Congress Do?

From The Huffington Post:

Jon Davidson and Leslie Gabel-Brett
Posted: March 2, 2011

This has been a dramatic and historic week in our fight for LGBT equality. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed papers in our case representing Karen Golinski, a federal judicial employee who has been denied equal medical coverage for her wife.

It was only last week that the president and attorney general announced that the federal government would no longer defend Section 3 of DOMA, the section that requires the federal government to ignore and discriminate against the marriages of same-sex couples, because they have concluded it is unconstitutional. The government was required by the judge in the Golinski case to explain how it intended to defend its decision to deny equal medical benefits covering Golinski’s wife since the government had relied upon the very law it now agrees is unconstitutional. The government’s lawyers stated that while they have concluded that Section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, they will continue to enforce it until it is struck down or repealed. Golinski and her wife will not get equal medical coverage today.

And in two separate DOMA challenges, one brought by our colleagues at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the other brought by the ACLU, the DOJ sent letters to the courts indicating they would “cease defending Section 3” in those matters.

What does this all mean?

First, there is a far-reaching element of the attorney general’s announcement last week that will take us beyond DOMA: The DOJ concluded that laws that treat people differently on the basis of sexual orientation demand “heightened scrutiny” by courts, which means that such laws are presumed unconstitutional. When heightened scrutiny is required, the burden is on the government to prove that a law, at least, substantially relates to advancing an important government interest. The DOJ does not have the authority to establish this level of review in the law — only courts can do that. But the opinion of the president and attorney general carry considerable weight. Courts will take it seriously.

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