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Judge strikes at gay-union ban

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    Tricia Dykers Koenig, left, and Michelle Ready held hands yesterday as they observed the vote by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church on lifting the church's ban on ordaining noncelebate gays and lesbians.
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BOSTON » The federal law banning gay marriage is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define the institution and therefore denies married gay couples some federal benefits, a federal judge ruled yesterday in Boston.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro ruled in favor of gay couples’ rights in two separate challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, a 1996 law that the Obama administration has argued for repealing. The rulings apply to Massachusetts but could have broader implications if they are upheld on appeal.

The state had argued the law denied benefits such as Medicaid to gay married couples in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions have been legal since 2004.

Tauro agreed and said the act forces Massachusetts to discriminate against its own citizens in order to be eligible for federal funding in federal-state partnerships.

The act "plainly encroaches" upon the right of the state to determine marriage, Tauro said in his ruling on a lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Martha Coakley. In a ruling in a separate case filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Tauro ruled the act violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"Congress undertook this classification for the one purpose that lies entirely outside of legislative bounds, to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves. And such a classification the Constitution clearly will not permit," Tauro wrote.

PRESBYTERIANS TABLE GAY-MARRIAGE ISSUE

MINNEAPOLIS » Presbyterian leaders split yesterday on two gay-friendly measures, voting to allow noncelibate gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy but deciding not to redefine marriage in their constitution to include same-sex couples—at least for now.

The surprise vote to shelve the marriage issue at the church’s general assembly late yesterday passed by a slim margin of 51 percent. The decision means the church will continue to define marriage as being between "a man and a woman" for at least two more years—unless supporters of the proposal can muster the votes to debate the issue again today.

Earlier, 53 percent of delegates approved the more liberal policy on gay clergy. But even that vote is not a final stamp of approval for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or its more than 2 million members.

Such changes must be approved by a majority of the church’s 173 U.S. presbyteries. Two years ago the assembly voted to liberalize the gay clergy policy—but it died last year when 94 presbyteries voted against it.

Under current policy, Presbyterians are only eligible to become clergy, deacons or elders if they are married or celibate. The new policy would strike references to sexuality altogether in favor of candidates committed to "joyful submission to worship of Christ."

"What this is about is making sure we uphold what Christ taught us, to not judge one another," said Dan Roth, a church elder from Sacramento.

But critics said the move would simply create disputes and bad feelings.

"If we are once again conflicted with this question in our presbyteries, all the air will be sucked out of the room," said the Rev. William Reid Dalton III of Burlington, N.C. "All the other things, the important issues we need to consider, will not considered."

Associated Press

Nancy Gill, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by GLAD, said she is "thrilled" with the rulings.

"I’m so happy I can’t even put it into words," she said.

Gill and Marcelle Letourneau married in Massachusetts in 2004 after being together for more than 20 years. When Gill, a U.S. postal worker, tried to add Letourneau to her family health plan, she was denied. The couple were forced to get separate insurance for Letourneau.

Letourneau called the rulings "life-changing."

"I can get on Nancy’s insurance," she said. "That’s just a huge victory, and it gives us peace of mind."

The Justice Department had argued the federal government had the right to set eligibility requirements for federal benefits—including requiring that those benefits go only to couples in traditional marriages.

Opponents of gay marriage said they were certain the rulings would be overturned on appeal.

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, called Tauro’s ruling "judicial activism" and said Tauro was a "rogue judge."

Gay marriage advocates will keep pushing their agenda in the courts, she said, but noted voters consistently have rejected gay marriage at the ballot box.

"We can’t allow the lowest common denominator states, like Massachusetts, to set standards for the country," Lafferty said.

The law was enacted by Congress in 1996 when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage and opponents worried that other states would be forced to recognize such marriages. The lawsuit challenges only the portion of the law that prevents the federal government from affording pension and other benefits to same-sex couples.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the decision is under review.

 

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