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March 11, 2011

Boehner says House will defend DOMA if Obama won’t

Washington, D.C.--After the Justice Department’s February 23 announcement that it will no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in court, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Speaker of the House, announced that his chamber will take up that task.

In a March 4 statement, Boehner said that he was convening the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives to defend the law. The group is a five-member panel comprised of the Speaker of the House, majority leader, majority whip, minority leader and minority whip.

The Legal Advisory Group can direct the House General Counsel to take legal action for the House of Representatives. On March 9, it voted 3‑2 to do so, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer voting no.

“It is regrettable that the Obama Administration has opened this divisive issue at a time when Americans want their leaders to focus on jobs and the challenges facing our economy,” Boehner’s statement reads. “The constitutionality of this law should be determined by the courts--not by the president unilaterally--and this action by the House will ensure the matter is addressed in a manner consistent with our Constitution.”

Obama, however, did not decide “unilaterally.” He instructed Attorney General Holder, who concurred with Obama’s assessment that the law is unconstitutional.

“House Republican leadership has now shown they’re more interested in scoring cheap political points on the backs of same-sex couples than tackling real problems,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “As families across the country continue to struggle, the House Republican leadership’s prescription is to keep families they don’t like from accessing needed protections”

The HRC pointed to Boehner’s own words last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“Our new majority is intent on honoring the commitment we made to the American people . . . We pledged we would focus on jobs and spending, and stopping the Washington regulatory assault that has led to massive uncertainty in the private sector. We’re going to keep our word,” he told the nation’s largest gathering of conservatives on February 10.

However, in the private sector, the majority of Fortune 500 companies give domestic partner health insurance benefits, 59 percent, while in the Fortune 100, that percentage rises to 83 percent. The regulations that are hurting those companies and their employees revolve around federal taxation of the benefits, which are considered non-marital.

Despite Boehner’s move, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and LGBT advocacy organization that focuses on legal challenges, believes they are properly poised to defeat the law in court.

“We are ready to address any defense of DOMA’s double standard for how the federal government deals with legally married couples,” said Mary L. Bonauto, who is co-lead attorney in the two DOMA cases GLAD has before the courts.

The two suits involve couples and widowers who were denied marital benefits under federal law, despite being legally married in states that allow same-sex marriage.

“DOMA damages families,” Bonauto noted. “Even though these couples are married, pay their taxes, and play by the rules, DOMA has separated spouses, taken money from children’s college funds, and denied widows assistance at the worst time of people’s lives.”

The Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and specifies that states cannot be forced to recognize marriages performed in other jurisdictions, despite the Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution.

DOMA came in reaction to the possibility that the Hawaii Supreme Court would soon rule that denying marriage to gays and lesbians violated the state constitution. But before it did, the state’s voters passed one of the nation’s first constitutional amendments against marriage, making the court case moot.

Obama and Holder believe that DOMA’s third part, which defines marriage as an opposite-sex institution for federal purposes, is unconstitutional, and a federal district court judge ruled so last July.

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