Leaders of the US House of Representatives [official website] on Friday petitioned [text, PDF] the Supreme Court [official website] to uphold the constitutionality of Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act [text], which limits the federal benefits of marriage to unions between a man and a woman. It states that for the purposes of any federal laws, "the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion; JURIST report] last month that the Section 3 is unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment [text]. Members of the House of Representatives argued that the First Circuit incorrectly used a "previously unknown standard of equal protection review," which the court described as "intensified scrutiny." The petitioners said that rational basis should apply, because the First Circuit case upheld that sexual orientation is not a suspect class or a class eligible for intermediate scrutiny and that the provision was permissible under rational basis scrutiny. The First Circuit stopped short of deciding whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage [JURIST backgrounder] in its decision on the DOMA. This petition is the first on DOMA to reach the Supreme Court, whose next term, which begins October 1.
The First Circuit's decision was the first appeals decision on the law, but there have been other challenges in different circuits. Last week, Republican members of the House filed a memorandum in a district court in the Second Circuit asking it to refrain from ruling [JURIST report] in a case challenging the act's constitutionality until the Second Circuit Court of Appeals [official website] makes a ruling in a pending case. US Senators also filed an amicus brief [JURIST report] in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] asking that the appeals court uphold the DOMA as constitutional. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York [official website] also ruled [JURIST report] that the DOMA is unconstitutional earlier this month. These rulings all came after the Department of Justice [official website] announced [JURIST report] last year that it would no longer defend the law as constitutional.