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NY Attorney General Challenges U.S. Defense of Marriage Act

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed court papers challenging as unconstitutional the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Schneiderman said the federal act violates the right to equal protection under the law for gay couples. He filed the friend-of-the-court brief today in federal court in Manhattan, two days after New York began allowing gays to wed.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act interferes with New York’s exercise of its authority to define marriage and to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation, Schneiderman said in the filing. The law, known as DOMA, is also an “intrusion” into an area at the heart of state sovereign power, he argued.

“By discriminating among married couples based on sexual orientation and sex, DOMA deprives New York of the ability to extend true equality to all marriages valid in the state,” according to the filing.

Schneiderman submitted the papers in support of a summary judgment motion in Windsor v. United States. The case was filed by Edith Windsor, who married her partner, Thea Spyer, in Toronto in 2007. After Spyer died two years later, the federal government didn’t acknowledge their marriage and taxed Windsor’s inheritance. Her suit challenges DOMA and seeks a refund of the estate taxes.

Federal Benefits

In addition to federal estate-tax exemptions, federal benefits for married couples include gift-tax exemptions, social security benefits, veteran’s benefits and the option to file joint bankruptcy petitions. Should the law be changed, federal recognition of gay marriage may also affect eligibility for Medicaid and incur the so-called federal income tax marriage penalty.

New York’s gay marriage law took effect July 24. With 19.4 million residents, the state is the sixth and most populous U.S. state to grant same-sex couples the right to wed, a move approved by the Legislature in Albany on June 24. The victory for gay-rights advocates more than doubled the number of Americans living in states allowing same-sex marriage to 35 million.

Debate began at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on July 20 on the proposed Respect for Marriage Act, which would end DOMA and let the federal government extend benefits such as Social Security and health-insurance coverage to same-sex married couples. The proposal wouldn’t require states to legalize same-sex marriages.

In February, the Obama administration said it would no longer oppose court challenges to DOMA.

The case is Windsor v. United States, 10-cv-08435, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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