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Coakley challenges federal marriage act

It forces Mass. to discriminate, she says in filing

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press / February 20, 2010

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BOSTON - A federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman forces Massachusetts, the first state in the country to legalize gay marriage, to discriminate against same-sex couples, state Attorney General Martha Coakley argues in court papers.

Coakley’s office filed a lawsuit in July challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

In court papers filed in US District Court on Thursday, Coakley asked a judge to deem the law unconstitutional without holding a trial on the lawsuit.

Coakley argues that regulating marital status has traditionally been left to the states. She said the federal law treats married heterosexual couples and married same-sex couples differently; for instance, when determining eligibility for Medicaid benefits and when determining whether the spouse of a veteran can be buried in a Massachusetts veterans cemetery.

The law forces Massachusetts “to engage in invidious discrimination against its own citizens in order to receive and retain federal funds in connection with two joint federal-state programs,’’ Coakley said in the court filing.

“Massachusetts cannot receive or retain federal funds if it gives same-sex and different-sex spouses equal treatment, namely by authorizing the burial of a same-sex spouse in a federally funded veterans’ cemetery and by recognizing the marriages of same-sex spouses in assessing eligibility for Medicaid health benefits,’’ she said.

The filing was made in response to a motion by the US Justice Department to dismiss the lawsuit and to support Coakley’s request to declare the law unconstitutional without holding a trial.

The Obama administration has acknowledged that the marriage act is discriminatory and wants Congress to repeal it. But the Justice Department has said it has an obligation to defend laws enacted by Congress while they are on the books.

Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, had no immediate comment yesterday on Coakley’s court filing.

In court papers filed in October, the Justice Department disputed the state’s assertion that people have a right to federal benefits based on marital status.

“There is, however, no fundamental right to marriage-based federal benefits,’’ the Justice Department said.

The Defense of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996 when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriages and opponents worried that other states would be forced to recognize them.

Since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004, the state has issued marriage licenses to more than 15,000 same-sex couples.