Mass. can't force gay marriage benefits

By Devlin Barrett

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- States that allow gay marriage can't force the federal government to provide benefits to those couples, the Obama administration argued last Friday in court papers in a lawsuit by Massachusetts.

The Justice Department is at odds with Massachusetts -- the first state to allow gay marriage -- over a 1996 federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Massachusetts sued in July, saying that law is discriminatory and deprives gay couples in the state of some federal spousal benefits.

The Obama administration agrees the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, is discriminatory and wants it repealed, but says it has an obligation to defend laws enacted by Congress while they are on the books and can be reasonably defended.

The law "does not prohibit gay and lesbian couples from marrying, nor does it prohibit the states from acknowledging same-sex marriages," according to the court filing by Assistant Attorney General Tony West.

Massachusetts, the filing continues, is trying to claim individuals have a right to federal benefits based on marital status.

"There is, however, no fundamental right to marriage-based federal benefits," according to the 36-page filing.

Joe Solmonese, head of the nation's largest gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign, said the law is discriminatory and the Obama administration should not defend it.

"While we hope Massachusetts prevails in this lawsuit, we are also looking to the administration to put its full weight behind efforts to repeal DOMA in Congress," Solmonese said.

The 1996 law denies federal recognition of gay marriage and gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Massachusetts is the first state to sue the government over the DOMA law. Some gay couples have filed their own lawsuits challenging the law, but this case is unique in pitting a state against the federal government over the issue.

Justice Dept. spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said any state "can allow gay and lesbian citizens to marry and can make its own decisions about how to treat married couples when it comes to state benefits."

"Massachusetts is not being denied the right to provide benefits to same-sex couples and, in fact, has enacted a law to provide equal health benefits to same-sex spouses," she said.

In earlier filings, the government has sought to dismiss the DOMA lawsuits brought by individuals.

The Massachusetts case could also have implications for Democratic Party politics. The Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Coakley, is trying to win the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy, at the same time her office is leading the lawsuit against the Democratic administration on the issue of gay rights.

Coakley's spokeswoman, Emily LaGrassa, said Coakley would not comment on the government's filing.

"We received it, and we will file our response in court," LaGrassa said.

The lawsuit brought by Massachusetts says the approximately 16,000 same-sex couples who have married since the state allowed it in 2004 are being unfairly denied federal benefits given to heterosexual couples.

Those benefits include federal income tax credits, employment benefits, retirement benefits, health insurance coverage and Social Security payments, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also argues that the federal law requires the state to violate the constitutional rights of its citizens by treating married heterosexual couples and married same-sex couples differently when determining eligibility for Medicaid benefits and when determining whether the spouse of a veteran can be buried in a Massachusetts veterans' cemetery.

Besides Massachusetts, five other states -- Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Iowa -- have legalized gay marriage.