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Opinion: Court's DOMA decision should eliminate religion's influence on marriage

Posted by Angela Nelson, Staff  March 27, 2013 05:07 PM

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By Robert Trestan, regional director, Anti-Defamation League New England and Eastern states civil rights counsel

The threshold question at the Supreme Court today stems from a court of appeals decision which assures full federal recognition of civil marriages, while allowing religious groups the freedom to choose how to define marriage for themselves. This is a reasonable approach. The current problem stems from the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed in 1996 by President Clinton; DOMA incorporated into federal law a single religious definition of marriage, a definition inconsistent with the faith beliefs of many religious groups.

Of course, religious views differ widely when it comes to deciding what marriages qualify to be solemnized. In fact, in many religious communities, there is disagreement among individual congregations—and, within congregations, even disagreement among individual congregants.

This diversity of belief is not new. Even within unified religious groups, restrictions on religious marriage have changed over time. Since the pilgrims landed on our shores seeking religious freedom, groups have benefited from the liberty to adopt and modify the requirements for marriage within their own religious communities. But they do not have the right to impose their particular religious view onto the institution of civil marriage.

This begs the question: Does Congress have the right to impose on the States a one size fits all determination when it comes to marriage? Based on today’s argument, it sounds like the Court will say no. Whether the decision is grounded in a theory of states’ rights, or in the fundamental constitutional principles of religious liberty and equal protection, the Justice s seem likely to recognize that DOMA is flawed and should not stand.

Both marriage equality cases the Court heard this week carry echoes from another case decided less than 50 years ago. In 1967, the Court considered the constitutionality of Virginia’s law forbidding marriage between persons of different races. Not surprisingly, opponents offered religious arguments against interracial marriage. But the Court rejected them, appropriately recognizing that the law served no secular purpose, and were rooted in nothing more than racial discrimination disguised as a moral or religious belief.

Our government has no legitimate interest in enacting legislation intended to mandate a particular version of Judeo-Christian religious morality. To be treated equally, same-sex couples must have the same access to marriage – a fundamental right – as other couples. DOMA stands as an unacceptable barrier to equal access to the full range of benefits of civil marriage for same-sex couples. After today, its life expectancy has hopefully been reduced to less than three months.

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