In a major move that will shape the fight for LGBT rights on the federal level for years to come, a legal advocacy group will file suit in the Federal District Court of Boston today seeking that some of the federal benefits that come with marriage be extended to legally married same-sex couples. If the lawsuit is successful, gay and lesbian New Yorkers who have been married in Massachusetts or Connecticut will gain several of the federal benefits of marriage that pertain to Social Security, federal income tax, federal employees and retirees, and the issuance of passports. If the marriage equality bill becomes law in New York, the benefits would also apply to residents who marry here in their home state.
Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders – the group that successfully argued for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts – will challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. From the New York Times: “’In our view, it’s a straightforward equal-protection issue,” said Mary L. Bonauto, civil rights project director for the group, referring to the constitutional mandate that laws be applied equally to everyone.”
The lawsuit focuses on gaining equal protection under the law for a select few of the 1,138 federal benefits of marriage. What is will not do, however, is challenge the part of DOMA that allows states to decide whether or not they will recognize and respect marriages of same-sex couples that were performed out of state, as New York does. Legal experts hope this will allow the Court to focus on the fairness issue.
The plaintiffs in the suit include eight couples and three widowers. One of them, Herbert Burtis, 78, lost his spouse last year, but cannot under federal law receive the $700 a month in Social Security survivor benefits that he would get if had he been in a straight marriage. According to the Times, Burtis doesn’t expect to win federal benefits for same-sex marriages in his lifetime, “But at least I can be part of what I think would be a historic moment to help someone in a future generation get equality under the law,” he said.
Yes he can – and we thank him for doing so as we wait to see what happens in this crucial case.