NEW YORK — Gay civil rights groups trying to build momentum for a possible Supreme Court showdown filed two lawsuits Tuesday that seek to strike down portions of a 1996 law that denies married gay couples federal benefits.
The lawsuits were filed in federal courts in Connecticut and New York and come just months after a federal judge in Boston struck down a key component of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
If the multiple suits result in different appellate rulings, it could increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court will eventually consider the issue. Also, rulings by federal appeals courts would affect wider areas. For instance, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston covers includes Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire.
The legal actions seek judicial declarations that the law enacted by Congress in 1996, when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional because it prevents the federal government from affording pension and other benefits to same-sex couples. Since 2004, five states — Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage.
In Hartford, Conn., the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders sued the federal government on behalf of a Connecticut widower and married couples from Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. The other lawsuit was filed on behalf of a New York woman, Edith Schlain Windsor, who met her late spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, nearly a half century ago at a restaurant.
“No one should have to fight with the government after losing the person she’s loved for more than four decades,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Edie and Thea made the same lifelong commitment that other married couples make, and their marriage deserves the same dignity, respect and protection afforded other families.”
Mary Bonauto, an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said the Connecticut lawsuit was filed to maintain the momentum the group gained with the success of its challenge against the law in Massachusetts.
In July, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro in Boston ruled in two separate lawsuits that the Defense of Marriage Act forces the state to discriminate against its own citizens to qualify for federal funding. He also said it violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
The Justice Department said in a statement that it had no response to the lawsuits, except that the government “is defending the statute, as it traditionally does when acts of Congress are challenged.”
The department said that, as a policy matter, President Obama has made clear that he believes the law is “discriminatory and should be repealed” and was working with Congress to do so.
One of the Connecticut litigants, Jerry Passaro, 45, of Milford, was denied survivor benefits after his husband, Tom Buckholz, died of lymphoma.
“It’s very hurtful,” Passaro said. “Tommy and I were a team for so many years and to have that false sense of security that you are getting married and will have the same entitlements that everyone else has, it’s very, very unhealthy.”
Raquel Ardin, of North Hartland, Vt., said she felt like she and her wife, Lynda DeForge, 54, were being treated like second-class citizens when DeForge was denied time off from the U.S. Postal Service under the Family and Medical Leave Act to take care of Ardin.
“I just don’t think it’s right,” Ardin said. The couple married in 2009 and have been together 30 years.
Bradley Kleinerman, 47, and his husband, Flint Gehre, 44, of Avon, said they lose money every year on taxes by being forced to file as single or head of household. They also have to prepare a third federal return as a couple, so they can figure out the income figures to put on their joint state return.