Thursday, May 17, 2012

What's DOMA Got To Do With It?

At the Rhode Island Employment Law Blog we LOVE feedback from our readers.  Typically, we receive feedback through our LinkedIn connection to the Blog.  In addition, you can write your questions or comments right at the bottom of each Blog post.  

Today's great feedback question comes from Bill Klocek (thanks Bill!) who wanted to know why DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) did not trump Rhode Island Governor Chafee's executive order recognizing same-sex marriages from other states.  GREAT QUESTION!

First, a little background.  D.O.M.A. is a federal law, enacted in 1996, that denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and authorizes states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states.  

Under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 1), states are expected to recognize the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.  Congress was alarmed at the prospect of a lesbian or gay couple being married in one state and then going to another state and expecting that state to recognize them as legally married.  Congress did not want to grant same-sex couples the same federal benefits that are given to heterosexual couples who are legally married.

In order to prevent this from happening, Congress passed DOMA.

The kinds of federal laws in which marital status is a factor include: 

  • Social Security and Related Programs, Housing, and Food Stamps
  • Veterans' Benefits
  • Taxation
  • Federal Civilian and Military Service Benefits
  • Employment Benefits and Related Laws
  • Immigration, Naturalization, and Aliens
  • Native Americans
  • Trade, Commerce, and Intellectual Property
  • Financial Disclosure and Conflict of Interest
  • Crimes and Family Violence
  • Loans, Guarantees, and Payments in Agriculture
  • Federal Natural Resources and Related Laws

The text of DOMA is very brief and contains only two provisions: (1) No state, territory, or Indian tribe shall be required to legally recognize a "relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of another state, territory or Indian tribe."  In other words, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution has no application to same-sex marriages. (2) The federal government is to follow a definition of the word "marriage" that means only "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

So, to answer Bill's question, DOMA bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages.  DOMA permits states to ignore same-sex marriage recognition from other states, but it does not prevent a state from recognizing same-sex marriages in other states.

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