WASHINGTON -- Just over a month after the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network on Thursday announced a lawsuit seeking to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
The lawsuit, first reported by The Huffington Post last week, will be filed in Massachusetts federal court on Thursday on behalf of eight current and retired service members and their families. According to SLDN, the plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of DOMA as well as provisions in Titles 10, 32 and 38 of the U.S. Code that prevent service members in same-sex marriages from receiving the same benefits as heterosexual couples.
At an event announcing the lawsuit at the National Press Club, the plaintiffs and their family members cast the challenge in terms of fairness. "The case we are bringing is about one thing, plain and simple: It's about justice for gay and lesbian service members and their families and our armed forces," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and the executive director of SLDN. He stressed that all eight plaintiffs were "legally married" in various states.
Shannon McLaughlin, a major in the Massachusetts National Guard and one of the plaintiffs, made a similar argument. Standing at the podium with her wife and 10-month-old son, she declared that the issue boils down to this: "We've been serving our country too long, working too hard, sacrificing too much to see our families denied the same recognition, support and benefits as our straight married counterparts."
Those benefits include medical coverage, access to military bases, allowances for housing and unit programs that provide support and information to family members. Their denial has taken a concrete toll on service members in same-sex marriages.
Army Lt. Col. Victoria Hudson, for example, highlighted the burden on her and her wife when Hudson was deployed to Iraq in 2005. By her own count, she commanded convoys 19 times while overseas, and each time "it makes you think about, if I don't come back, who's going to notify my wife?" She told The Huffington Post that such clear injustice gives her confidence that the public will understand and support repealing DOMA: "When I say that, you know, I go to Iraq and if I had died my wife, Monica, wouldn't have been notified, they're appalled."
With the Obama administration no longer defending DOMA against legal challenges, SLDN hopes that the case will proceed quickly. Christopher Mann of the law firm Chadbourne & Parke, which is handling the case, said that between the administration's stance and the court's previous experience with DOMA issues, he hoped for a resolution within "a few months."
The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts has ruled against DOMA in the past, and Mann cited its familiarity with the issue as the reason why SLDN initiated the lawsuit there. "That court's already briefed the issues, they're familiar with it, so it makes sense to go ahead and file there rather than reinvent the wheel before another court," he said. In response to a question, he said the issue may not need to proceed as far as the Supreme Court.
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality. Since doing so, the it has seen more than $100 million in economic benefits from spending on those weddings. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Massachusetts also enjoys the lowest divorce rate in the nation, with 2.2 divorces for every 1,000 couples.
The SLDN lawsuit is not the only current challenge to DOMA. Carmen Cardona, a lesbian Navy veteran, recently filed suit in Connecticut to claim disability benefits for her and her spouse. The payments are currently denied because her marriage, while legal in the state, is not recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But any ruling in Cardona's suit, which will be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, would not apply to gays who are currently serving in the military.
In Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin debate over DOMA repeal on Nov. 3. The proposed Respect for Marriage Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by 30 others, seeks to overturn federal restrictions on recognizing same-sex marriages. While the bill, supported by the committee's entire Democratic majority, is almost certain to advance to the Senate floor, it stands little chance of passing the Republican-controlled House.
Still, SLDN is hopeful that the legislation is a positive sign. "It's unclear which train will get to the station first, but they will be moving on parallel tracks," said Zeke Stokes, the group's communications director.