What Is DOMA and Why Is It Bad?

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June 13, 2013
Jon W. Davidson, Legal Director

DOMA is the shortened name for the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA is a federal law that was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, in response to the marriage equality litigation in Hawaii in which Lambda Legal was co-counsel. Some members of Congress were worried that, if same-sex couples won the right to marry in Hawaii, the federal government and other states might have to start honoring those marriages. They passed DOMA in an effort to prevent that.

Learn more about the DOMA and Prop 8 cases at the Supreme Court.

There are two main parts of the law: Section 2 of DOMA says that Congress believes other states should be able to ignore marriages lawfully entered by same-sex couples, and treat those legally-married couples as strangers to one another. Section 3 of DOMA says that the federal government does not have to recognize or honor those marriages. DOMA does not prohibit states from allowing same-sex couples to marry—it only addresses the consequences of those marriages for purposes of other states' laws or federal laws.

Whether or not the federal government recognizes the marriages of same-sex couples can be very important in their lives. A General Accounting Office report looked at all federal statutes and found 1,138 federal laws using terms like “spouse,” “husband,” “wife,” “widow” or “widower,” that treat people differently based on whether or not the federal government recognizes them as married. As a result of DOMA, married same-sex couples are denied things like:

  • health insurance and pension protections for federal employees' spouses
  • social security benefits for widows and widowers
  • support and benefits for military spouses
  • joint income tax filing and exemption from federal estate taxes
  • immigration protections for binational couples

Furthermore, one of the most basic things that spouses often provide for each other is access to workplace health benefits. Many employers do provide equal access to health benefits to the spouses of all their employees—different sex and same-sex alike. But because the federal government does not recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, lesbian and gay employees who sign their spouses up for health insurance must pay income taxes on the amount of the premium as if that were part of their paycheck. Different-sex couples whose employers provide family health care coverage can enroll in that coverage tax-free.

Beyond all those tangible things, it's very upsetting to couples who are legally married to have their federal government completely disregard their marriages and families. And the message it sends to others compounds the damage—if the federal government says same-sex couples aren’t really married, then others may believe they can be equally disrespectful of same-sex couples’ relationships and of lesbians and gay men in general.

Lambda Legal won’t give up until DOMA is defeated once and for all. The damage it causes for our families must end. 

Learn more about the marriage cases at the Supreme Court.

Originally published November 27, 2012.