(888) 277-4253

Change of heart on DOMA marks historical turning point in gay rights

Mark down Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011, as a crucial turning point in the movement toward equality for all Americans.

On this day the Obama administration declared that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of a 1996 federal law, the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

DOMA also denies gay and lesbian couples who are legally married from more than 1,000 benefits that are granted to married straight couples, setting up a separate and unequal situation. In essence, married same-sex couples are treated as second-class citizens under DOMA.

Wednesday’s stunning decision, quietly announced in a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to House Speaker John John A. Boehner, seemed to come out of the blue. But Barack Obama, during his campaign for president, promised to fight DOMA because he believed it was unconstitutional even though his personal view on same-sex marriage was conflicted.

Advocates for equality found the decision to be historical.

“This is a monumental turning point in the history of the quest for equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people,” said Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“DOMA was unconstitutional in 1996, and it’s unconstitutional today, and the Obama Administration made the right call to no longer defend it in the courts,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. “The Defense of Marriage Act has never been about defending marriage. It’s been nothing more than an unconstitutional effort to deny same-sex couples basic rights and protections.”

Lambda Legal, which fights for LGBT rights, noted the sea change this decision will bring legally.

"This is a monumental turning point in the history of the quest for equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. The president and the Attorney General recognized [Wednesday] what we have been saying in court since the day we opened our doors: Discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation should be presumed to be unconstitutional and unconstitutional laws should not be defended. It is past time for DOMA to become only an ugly part of our nation's history,” said Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal.

"We are proud of our part in the precedent setting cases leading to today's announcement. Both Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas are landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases litigated by Lambda Legal that established among other things that the equal protection guarantee in the federal Constitutional applies to gay people. The Attorney General expressly relied on these cases in his letter to Congress explaining why laws discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation are suspect and that the so-called DOMA is unconstitutional,” he said.

"While the so-called DOMA is very clearly crumbling it is not yet gone. The executive branch will continue to enforce it until it is repealed by Congress or struck down by the courts. We will continue our efforts to dismantle this law, along with all other laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation. Today's action by the president and the Department of Justice hastens the day when those laws will no longer stain our nation," Davidson said.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said the decision propelled gay rights into the 21st century.

“Our government finally recognizes what we knew 14 years ago — that the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ is a gross violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection before the law. DOMA betrays core American values of fairness, justice and dignity for all, and has no place in America,” Romero said.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, also noted how the decision will forever impact LGBT rights in the U.S.

“[Wednesday’s] announcement is courageous and history-changing. It is also fully consistent with the practice of past Attorneys General, who have decided that some laws are so blatantly discriminatory that they cannot and should not be defended in court. The president and the Attorney General were absolutely correct to conclude that there can be no ‘reasonable defense’ of a law intended only to disadvantage and harm some families, while helping none. The president and the Attorney General were also right to conclude that because LGBT people have suffered a long history of discrimination in this country, laws that target people based on their sexual orientation are highly likely to be based on prejudice and should be presumptively considered unconstitutional,” Kendell said.

“The president’s leadership on this issue has forever changed the landscape for LGBT people in this country. For the first time, the president and the Department of Justice have recognized that laws that harm same-sex couples cannot be justified. This is the beginning of the end, not just for the mean-spirited and indefensible Defense of Marriage Act, but for the entire panoply of laws that discriminate against same-sex couples,” Kendell said.

“For the first time, the president and the Department of Justice have recognized that laws that harm same-sex couples cannot be justified. This is the beginning of the end, not just for the mean-spirited and indefensible Defense of Marriage Act, but for the entire panoply of laws that discriminate against same-sex couples.”

The National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) applauded the move.

“The decision to no longer defend DOMA in court means the president has taken another bold, courageous step toward meeting the needs of LGBT families,” said Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, executive director of NBJC.

“The president’s decision to stop defending DOMA lawsuits moves our nation away from embracing discriminatory, punitive policies and significantly closer to recognizing the fundamental liberty for all Americans.”

Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, expressed hope that the administration’s change of heart will impact the courts as well.
“DOMA is in direct conflict with our nation’s core principles of fairness and equality enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, as it denies same-sex couples and their families the fundamental right to marry along with basic protections. The President and the Attorney General’s decision will bring us one step closer toward achieving full equality for LGBT people. We are hopeful that the courts will follow suit and strike DOMA and similar anti-marriage laws from the books,” Kors said.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, was pleased by the decision, but wondered why the administration was still defending the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy in court, even after Congress has approved its repeal.

“The Obama administration’s announcement to stop defending the constitutionality of key parts of DOMA reflects where the vast majority of Americans stand today on fundamental fairness. The Justice Department was right to cite how our laws are changing. More important, the views of the American people are changing on these issues. The Supreme Court’s favorable Lawrence decision in 2003 recognizing the rights of adults, including gays and lesbians, to engage in consensual relationships, as well as the recent Congressional votes to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ underscore this shift and were properly cited by the Justice Department,” Sarvis said.

“Servicemembers Legal Defense Networks regrets the Justice Department continues to defend the ‘Don’t Ask’ law in court, but this can and should come to an end as soon as the Obama Administration makes a needed certification that will finally trigger the repeal of that law. This should happen sooner rather than later,” Sarvis added.

Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), which sued the government of DADT, also wondered why the administration was still defending DADT.

“The so-called Defense of Marriage Act is an unprecedented intrusion by the federal government upon the right of states to make their own decisions about what makes a marriage. When a state like New Hampshire elects to recognize all marriages, regardless of sexual orientation, it is not the role of the federal government to intervene. As conservatives and as federalists, Log Cabin Republicans welcome this decision,” said R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans executive director.

“However, it is important to note that the same Department of Justice, under the command of President Obama, continues to defend the failed and unconstitutional ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy in court, and will be submitting their arguments this Friday, February 25th. This is just one more example of the Obama administration talking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to equality for all Americans. Today Log Cabin Republicans call upon the Department of Justice to also admit that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is indefensible,” Cooper said.

HRC President Joe Solmonese praised the decision.

“This is a monumental decision for the thousands of same-sex couples and their families who want nothing more than the same rights and dignity afforded to other married couples,” Solmonese said. “As the President has stated previously, DOMA unfairly discriminates against Americans and we applaud him for fulfilling his oath to defend critical constitutional principles.”

Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, called the decision monumental.

“This is a very significant and welcomed development. I commend the president on his bold leadership. It means that the discriminatory and harmful Defense of Marriage Act is on its last legs. The federal government is one big step closer to providing equal rights and responsibilities to millions of loving and legally married same-sex couples. This is an important moment in the struggle for full equality and the president deserves a lot of credit,” Socarides said.

He also noted the changing landscape for marriage.

“It is clear to an increasing majority of Americans that we should no longer deny the right to marry to any of our citizens. The signs are very good in Maryland with the state senate expected to pass a marriage bill as early as tomorrow, making it our sixth state where all Americans are allowed the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Maryland can provide important momentum for New York, which may be next, before the summer, if Gov. Cuomo gets his way. And Rhode Island is possible this year too," Socarides said.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, weighed in on the decision.

"The decision by the Obama administration not to defend the discriminatory, so-called 'Defense of Marriage Act' is a tremendous step toward recognizing our common humanity and ending an egregious injustice against thousands of loving, committed couples who simply want the protections, rights and responsibilities afforded other married couples,” Carey said.

“We thank the Obama administration for having the integrity to recognize that this law should not be defended in court. Discrimination has no place in our society, and DOMA has only served to belittle our country's deeply held values of freedom and fairness. It's time to end DOMA once and for all."

Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter

The Honorable John A. Boehner
Speaker
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Re: Defense of Marriage Act

Dear Mr. Speaker:

After careful consideration, including review of a recommendation from me, the President of the United States has made the determination that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), 1 U.S.C. § 7, as applied to same-sex couples who are legally married under state law, violates the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 530D, I am writing to advise you of the Executive Branch’s determination and to inform you of the steps the Department will take in two pending DOMA cases to implement that determination.

While the Department has previously defended DOMA against legal challenges involving legally married same-sex couples, recent lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of DOMA Section 3 have caused the President and the Department to conduct a new examination of the defense of this provision. In particular, in November 2011, plaintiffs filed two new lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in jurisdictions without precedent on whether sexual-orientation classifications are subject to rational basis review or whether they must satisfy some form of heightened scrutiny. Windsor v. United States, No. 1:10-cv-8435 (S.D.N.Y.); Pedersen v. OPM, No. 3:10-cv-1750 (D. Conn.). Previously, the Administration has defended Section 3 in jurisdictions where circuit courts have already held that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to rational basis review, and it has advanced arguments to defend DOMA Section 3 under the binding standard that has applied in those cases.

These new lawsuits, by contrast, will require the Department to take an affirmative position on the level of scrutiny that should be applied to DOMA Section 3 in a circuit without binding precedent on the issue. As described more fully below, the President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny and that, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law, Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.

Standard of review

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the appropriate level of scrutiny for classifications based on sexual orientation. It has, however, rendered a number of decisions that set forth the criteria that should inform this and any other judgment as to whether heightened scrutiny applies: (1) whether the group in question has suffered a history of discrimination; (2) whether individuals “exhibit obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group”; (3) whether the group is a minority or is politically powerless; and (4) whether the characteristics distinguishing the group have little relation to legitimate policy objectives or to an individual’s “ability to perform or contribute to society.” See Bowen v. Gilliard, 483 U.S. 587, 602-03 (1987); City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr. , 473 U.S. 432, 441-42 (1985).

Each of these factors counsels in favor of being suspicious of classifications based on sexual orientation. First and most importantly, there is, regrettably, a significant history of purposeful discrimination against gay and lesbian people, by governmental as well as private entities, based on prejudice and stereotypes that continue to have ramifications today. Indeed, until very recently, states have “demean[ed] the[] existence” of gays and lesbians “by making their private sexual conduct a crime.” Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 578 (2003).

Second, while sexual orientation carries no visible badge, a growing scientific consensus accepts that sexual orientation is a characteristic that is immutable, see Richard A. Posner, Sex and Reason 101 (1992); it is undoubtedly unfair to require sexual orientation to be hidden from view to avoid discrimination, see Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-321, 124 Stat. 3515 (2010).

Third, the adoption of laws like those at issue in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), and Lawrence, the longstanding ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and the absence of federal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation show the group to have limited political power and “ability to attract the [favorable] attention of the lawmakers.” Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 445. And while the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act and pending repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell indicate that the political process is not closed entirely to gay and lesbian people, that is not the standard by which the Court has judged “political powerlessness.” Indeed, when the Court ruled that gender-based classifications were subject to heightened scrutiny, women already had won major political victories such as the Nineteenth Amendment (right to vote) and protection under Title VII (employment discrimination).

Finally, there is a growing acknowledgment that sexual orientation “bears no relation to ability to perform or contribute to society.”

Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677, 686 (1973) (plurality). Recent evolutions in legislation (including the pending repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell), in community practices and attitudes, in case law (including the Supreme Court’s holdings in Lawrence and Romer), and in social science regarding sexual orientation all make clear that sexual orientation is not a characteristic that generally bears on legitimate policy objectives. See, e.g., Statement by the President on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 (“It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed.”)

To be sure, there is substantial circuit court authority applying rational basis review to sexual-orientation classifications. We have carefully examined each of those decisions. Many of them reason only that if consensual same-sex sodomy may be criminalized under Bowers v. Hardwick, then it follows that no heightened review is appropriate – a line of reasoning that does not survive the overruling of Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas, 538 U.S. 558 (2003). Others rely on claims regarding “procreational responsibility” that the Department has disavowed already in litigation as unreasonable, or claims regarding the immutability of sexual orientation that we do not believe can be reconciled with more recent social science understandings. And none engages in an examination of all the factors that the Supreme Court has identified as relevant to a decision about the appropriate level of scrutiny. Finally, many of the more recent decisions have relied on the fact that the Supreme Court has not recognized that gays and lesbians constitute a suspect class or the fact that the Court has applied rational basis review in its most recent decisions addressing classifications based on sexual orientation, Lawrence and Romer<.i>. But neither of those decisions reached, let alone resolved, the level of scrutiny issue because in both the Court concluded that the laws could not even survive the more deferential rational basis standard.

Application to Section 3 of DOMA

In reviewing a legislative classification under heightened scrutiny, the government must establish that the classification is “substantially related to an important government objective.” Clark v. Jeter, 486 U.S. 456, 461 (1988). Under heightened scrutiny, “a tenable justification must describe actual state purposes, not rationalizations for actions in fact differently grounded.” United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 535-36 (1996). “The justification must be genuine, not hypothesized or invented post hoc in response to litigation.” Id. at 533.

In other words, under heightened scrutiny, the United States cannot defend Section 3 by advancing hypothetical rationales, independent of the legislative record, as it has done in circuits where precedent mandates application of rational basis review. Instead, the United States can defend Section 3 only by invoking Congress’ actual justifications for the law.

Moreover, the legislative record underlying DOMA’s passage contains discussion and debate that undermines any defense under heightened scrutiny. The record contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against. See Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 448 (“mere negative attitudes, or fear” are not permissible bases for discriminatory treatment); see also Romer, 517 U.S. at 635 (rejecting rationale that law was supported by “the liberties of landlords or employers who have personal or religious objections to homosexuality”); Palmore v. Sidotti, 466 U.S. 429, 433 (1984) (“Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect.”).

Application to Second Circuit cases

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a heightened standard of scrutiny.

The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in Windsor and Pedersen, now pending in the Southern District of New York and the District of Connecticut. I concur in this determination.

Notwithstanding this determination, the President has informed me that Section 3 will continue to be enforced by the Executive Branch. To that end, the President has instructed Executive agencies to continue to comply with Section 3 of DOMA, consistent with the Executive’s obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, unless and until Congress repeals Section 3 or the judicial branch renders a definitive verdict against the law’s constitutionality. This course of action respects the actions of the prior Congress that enacted DOMA, and it recognizes the judiciary as the final arbiter of the constitutional claims raised.

As you know, the Department has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of duly-enacted statutes if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense, a practice that accords the respect appropriately due to a coequal branch of government. However, the Department in the past has declined to defend statutes despite the availability of professionally responsible arguments, in part because the Department does not consider every plausible argument to be a “reasonable” one. “[D]ifferent cases can raise very different issues with respect to statutes of doubtful constitutional validity,” and thus there are “a variety of factors that bear on whether the Department will defend the constitutionality of a statute.” Letter to Hon. Orrin G. Hatch from Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fois at 7 (Mar. 22, 1996). This is the rare case where the proper course is to forgo the defense of this statute. Moreover, the Department has declined to defend a statute “in cases in which it is manifest that the President has concluded that the statute is unconstitutional,” as is the case here. Seth P. Waxman, Defending Congress, 79 N.C. L.Rev. 1073, 1083 (2001).

In light of the foregoing, I will instruct the Department’s lawyers to immediately inform the district courts in Windsor and Pedersen of the Executive Branch’s view that heightened scrutiny is the appropriate standard of review and that, consistent with that standard, Section 3 of DOMA may not be constitutionally applied to same-sex couples whose marriages are legally recognized under state law. If asked by the district courts in the Second Circuit for the position of the United States in the event those courts determine that the applicable standard is rational basis, the Department will state that, consistent with the position it has taken in prior cases, a reasonable argument for Section 3’s constitutionality may be proffered under that permissive standard. Our attorneys will also notify the courts of our interest in providing Congress a full and fair opportunity to participate in the litigation in those cases. We will remain parties to the case and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation.

Furthermore, pursuant to the President’s instructions, and upon further notification to Congress, I will instruct Department attorneys to advise courts in other pending DOMA litigation of the President's and my conclusions that a heightened standard should apply, that Section 3 is unconstitutional under that standard and that the Department will cease defense of Section 3.

A motion to dismiss in the Windsor and Pedersen cases would be due on March 11, 2011. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Sincerely yours,

Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General
______________________________________

i DOMA Section 3 states: “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

ii See, e.g., Dragovich v. U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2011 WL 175502 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 18, 2011); Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, 699 F. Supp. 2d 374 (D. Mass. 2010); Smelt v. County of Orange, 374 F. Supp. 2d 861, 880 (C.D. Cal.,2005); Wilson v. Ake, 354 F.Supp.2d 1298, 1308 (M.D. Fla. 2005); In re Kandu, 315 B.R. 123, 145 (Bkrtcy. W.D. Wash. 2004); In re Levenson, 587 F.3d 925, 931 (9th Cir. E.D.R. Plan Administrative Ruling 2009).

iii While significant, that history of discrimination is different in some respects from the discrimination that burdened African-Americans and women. See Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 216 (1995) (classifications based on race “must be viewed in light of the historical fact that the central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to eliminate racial discrimination emanating from official sources in the States,” and “[t]his strong policy renders racial classifications ‘constitutionally suspect.’”); United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 531 (1996) (observing that “‘our Nation has had a long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination’” and pointing out the denial of the right to vote to women until 1920). In the case of sexual orientation, some of the discrimination has been based on the incorrect belief that sexual orientation is a behavioral characteristic that can be changed or subject to moral approbation. Cf. Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 441 (heightened scrutiny may be warranted for characteristics “beyond the individual’s control” and that “very likely reflect outmoded notions of the relative capabilities of” the group at issue); Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (“Unfavorable opinions about homosexuals ‘have ancient roots.’” (quoting Bowers, 478 U.S. at 192)).

iv See Equality Foundation v. City of Cincinnati, 54 F.3d 261, 266–67 & n. 2. (6th Cir. 1995); Steffan v. Perry, 41 F.3d 677, 685 (D.C. Cir. 1994); Woodward v. United States, 871 F.2d 1068, 1076 (Fed. Cir. 1989); Ben-Shalom v. Marsh, 881 F.2d 454, 464 (7th Cir. 1989); Padula v. Webster, 822 F.2d 97, 103 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

v See, e.g., Lofton v. Secretary of the Dep’t of Children & Family Servs. , 358 F.3d 804, 818 (11th Cir. 2004) (discussing child-rearing rationale); High Tech Gays v. Defense Indust. Sec. Clearance Office, 895 F.2d 563, 571 (9th Cir. 1990) (discussing immutability). As noted, this Administration has already disavowed in litigation the argument that DOMA serves a governmental interest in “responsible procreation and child-rearing.” H.R. Rep. No. 104-664, at 13. As the Department has explained in numerous filings, since the enactment of DOMA, many leading medical, psychological, and social welfare organizations have concluded, based on numerous studies, that children raised by gay and lesbian parents are as likely to be well-adjusted as children raised by heterosexual parents.

vi See Cook v. Gates, 528 F.3d 42, 61 (1st Cir. 2008); Citizens for Equal Prot. v. Bruning, 455 F.3d 859, 866 (8th Cir. 2006); Johnson v. Johnson, 385 F.3d 503, 532 (5th Cir. 2004); Veney v. Wyche, 293 F.3d 726, 732 (4th Cir. 2002); Equality Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Inc. v. City of Cincinnati, 128 F.3d 289, 292-94 (6th Cir. 1997).

vii See, e.g., H.R. Rep. at 15–16 (judgment [opposing same-sex marriage] entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality”); id. at 16 (same-sex marriage “legitimates a public union, a legal status that most people . . . feel ought to be illegitimate” and “put[s] a stamp of approval . . . on a union that many people . . . think is immoral”); id. at 15 (“Civil laws that permit only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality”); id. (reasons behind heterosexual marriage—procreation and child-rearing—are “in accord with nature and hence have a moral component”); id. at 31 (favorably citing the holding in Bowers that an “anti-sodomy law served the rational purpose of expressing the presumed belief . . . that homosexual sodomy is immoral and unacceptable”); id. at 17 n.56 (favorably citing statement in dissenting opinion in Romer that “[t]his Court has no business . . . pronouncing that ‘animosity’ toward homosexuality is evil”).