For at least the 5th time, a federal court has ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. This time it’s a federal judge in New York, in a case where a woman challenged the payment of an estate tax that was required only because the federal government did not recognize the marriage to her partner.
The important fact here is that the ruling was done on the basis of the rational basis test, which affords the lowest level of scrutiny. In almost all situations, when the court applies the rational basis test, the law being challenged is upheld. The plaintiff argued that the law should receive intermediate or heightened scrutiny, but the judge applied the rational basis test and still struck down the law. The rational basis test only requires that the law have a “rational relationship to a legitimate governmental interest,” a standard low enough that it is enough to uphold the law if “any state of facts reasonably may be conceived to justify it.” And even by that low standard, the judge rejected the government’s assertion of a legitimate interest.
The attorneys for Congress argued that the law does rationally relate to several legitimate governmental interests, namely “maintaining consistency in citizens’ eligibility for federal benefits, promoting a social understanding that marriage is related to childrearing, and providing children with two parents of the opposite sex.” They also argued that “caution” is a rational basis for the law and that Congress believed that DOMA would promote traditional marriage by “maintaining the definition of marriage that was universally accepted in American law.”
The judge ruled that while that interest may be legitimate, “it is unclear how DOMA advances it.”
DOMA does not affect the state laws that govern marriage. Precisely because the decision of whether same-sex couples can marry is left to the states, DOMA does not, strictly speaking, “preserve” the institution of marriage as one between a man and a woman…
To the extent Congress has any other independent interest in approaching same-sex marriage with caution, for much the same reason, DOMA does not further it. A number of states now permit same-sex marriage. DOMA did not compel those states to “wait for evidence spanning a longer term before engaging in … a major redefinition of a foundational social institution.” Thus, whatever the “social consequences” of this legal development may be, DOMA has not, and cannot, forestall them.
Promoting the ideal family structure for raising children is another reason Congress might have enacted DOMA. Again, the court does not disagree that promoting family values and responsible parenting are legitimate governmental goals. The court cannot, however, discern a logical relationship between DOMA and those goals.
This is the inevitable result of building an argument on a false pretext. Those aren’t really the reasons why DOMA was passed or why people oppose marriage equality, they are pretexts that act as a cover for the real reason, which is anti-gay bigotry. And that’s why they’re impossible to defend rationally in court. You can read the full ruling here.