07/09/2010 02:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Defense of Marriage Act Is a Legal Albatross

Fourteen years ago, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, one of the worst pieces of federal legislation ever passed. The law was always unnecessary and unwise. And on Thursday, a federal court in Massachusetts ruled that it is also unconstitutional.

The main impetus behind the 1996 law was the fear among conservative politicians and activists that if Hawaii -- where a same-sex marriage lawsuit had been filed -- issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the other 49 states would have to recognize them. But that fear was always unfounded because courts had never held that states were constitutionally required to recognize marriage licenses issued by other jurisdictions.

Although the Constitution does require that judicial judgments issued by the courts of one state be recognized by those of other states, the issuance of a marriage license is an administrative rather than a judicial act. As a result, Congress knew (or should have known) that courts had consistently ruled that states were permitted to refuse to recognize marriages from other jurisdictions that were inconsistent with their public policies.

Well-settled principles of law, then, made DOMA's attempt to relieve states from the obligations of recognizing same-sex marriages solemnized in other states entirely unnecessary.

But DOMA was not just unnecessary; it was also unwise. For more than two hundred years, the federal government had left it to the states to determine who was eligible to marry. Prior to 1996, federal law looked solely to state law to determine who was legally married and therefore who was entitled to the hundreds of federal rights and benefits available to spouses. The federal government did this because it was widely recognized that states had different marriage eligibility criteria -- related, for example, to age and consanguinity -- and that it made no sense to enact federal legislation that would, in effect, establish a national, one-size fits all definition of marriage.

The Defense of Marriage Act, therefore, was a radical departure from the more than two hundred years of history in which Congress refused to get involved in matters of domestic relations law that had always been under the control of the states.

Not every law that is unnecessary and unwise is automatically unconstitutional. The main reason why DOMA violates the Constitution is that it codifies raw prejudice against gay people. Supporters of the law have always claimed that it is necessary in order to promote heterosexual marriage. But as the federal court in Massachusetts recognized, no straight couple decides to marry simply because Congress has passed a law denying gay people all of the federal rights and benefits that accompany marriage.

While debating DOMA in 1996, members of Congress repeatedly referred to homosexuality as "immoral," "depraved," "unnatural," "based on perversion," and "against God's principles." It is clear that Congress enacted DOMA to send a message of disapproval of gay people and their relationships. And this is the true reason why the statute is a legal disgrace: Laws are supposed to address social issues and problems; they should not be used to further stigmatize a minority group for who they are and whom they love.

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