Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Find a Lawyer

More Options

What is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)?

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

You might be excused for thinking it is a snack of Greek origin, involving grape leaves. No, this is the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. DOMA is a federal law that defines marriage, with two key components. First, Section 2 allows states that do not themselves recognize marriages between same sex couples to refuse to recognize legal same sex marriages performed in other states that do, and second, Section 3 defines marriage for purposes of federal law as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." 

Sounds direct enough. However, the section of the law permitting some states to not recognize the legal acts of others has lead to some rather confusing results. As discussed in several prior posts, one excellent example of this is the attempt by two same sex couples, legally married in other states, to obtain divorces in Texas. Because the state of Texas does not itself recognize or permit same sex marriage, the Attorney General has intervened to prevent the divorce of each of the couples, one in Dallas and the other in Austin. Both couples were granted divorces by the judges hearing their cases. One case is on appeal, the other is on-going.

Additional problems have cropped up in the federal system regarding the federal definition of the term "marriage." One example is in California, where there is an on-going case of an attorney who is an employee of 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal employer. She has sued to have her wife (they were legally married in California before the passage of Prop. 8) become eligible for the health care benefits that she and their son currently have. Her employer, the Court, has granted her the benefits, but is being challenged by the Department of Justice, which is attempting to deny the benefits under the DOMA.

In Massachusetts, the first state to recognize same sex marriage, the first challenge to the constitutionality of DOMA has arisen. According to the Boston Globe, the suit filed by Mass Attorney General Martha Coakley in July 2009 alleges the DOMA infringes on the state's traditional rights to regulate marriage. Last week, AG Coakley has asked the court for a summary judgment on her case, which would resolve the matter without trial. Some experts believe it is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to make a decision on the constitutionality of the DOMA. Any appeals to the Massachusetts suit may give them that opportunity.

Related Resources:

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Copied to clipboard