Queens residents and politicians celebrated after the U.S. Department of Justice said it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits federal definition of wedlock as being between a man and a woman.
“This is truly a historic moment in the history of our country,” said openly gay Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights). “I have been in this movement since I was 17 and I never though I would see this day.”
This does not mean that marriage is now legal for gays and lesbians across the United States, or that government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Armed Forces will recognize same sex couples as married. The act remains in effect and will still be enforced. However, the DOJ’s stance calls the law into question.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder concluded that given a number of factors, including a “documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny.”
In future proceedings to determine the constitutionality of the law, counsel retained by pro-DOMA members of Congress will likely defend it. Then, it will be up to federal courts to decide its fate. Cases challenging the act could take many years to wind their way through the legal system, and in the end, DOMA could be ruled constitutional, but not on the DOJ’s watch.
“The department has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of duly-enacted statutes if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense,” read a statement issued by East Elmhurst native Holder. “At the same time, the department in the past has declined to defend statutes despite the availability of professionally responsible arguments, in part because — as here — the department does not consider every such argument to be a ‘reasonable’ one.”
For Donna Leiberman, executive director of the New York City American Civil Liberties Union, the attorney general’s statement marked a small victory. “The New York City ACLU has a lawsuit that attacks DOMA head-on and we are pleased that the justice department should be on the right side of that litigation now,” she said.
The ACLU is representing Edie Windsor, a New York City woman who was charged $350,000 in taxes to inherit her late wife, Thea Spyer’s estate. The pair, who had been together for 44 years, got married in Canada, but due to DOMA, their relationship was not recognized and Windsor was charged an inheritance tax, which does not apply to married heterosexuals.
Though New York State recognizes same-sex unions performed in other municipalities, Leiberman said that because state tax law is written to follow the IRS codes, gay and lesbian married couples in New York see none of the tax breaks marriage provides.
“We need what Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have done — to introduce legislation to repeal DOMA all together, because there are thousands of rights both on the state and federal level that married heterosexual people have that LGBT people don’t have and that’s discriminatory,” Dromm said.
Dromm is single and is in no rush to get married. “I don’t know if marriage is for me. I enjoy having everything in my apartment where I left it when I go home,” he said.
Though acknowledging the institution of marriage may discriminate against single people by offering benefits to couples, Dromm said entering a marriage was a choice that heterosexual people could make in their lives. “It’s not right for certain people not to have that choice based upon their sexual orientation,” he said.
Openly gay Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) lives with his partner, Dan Hendrick and said he was excited to learn of the DOJ’s stance on DOMA. Though he is in a serious relationship, he has not taken part in any type of formal commitment ceremony.
“I want to one day get married in the city that I was born in, in the state that I have always lived in, and I want to have full marriage equality. I am working for that day and I know it will come,” Van Bramer said.