Defense of Marriage Act: What Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Means for Michigan

Expect to see renewed passion on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate in Michigan, following Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and to allow same-sex marriage in California.

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court held that DOMA is unconstitutional, and that same-sex couples who are legally married are entitled to equal treatment under federal law. This ruling means that the federal government must recognize gay marriages deemed legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

DOMA was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, preventing same-sex couples whose marriages are recognized by their home state from receiving federal benefits available to other married couples.

In a second decision, the court declined to say whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Instead, the justices said that a case concerning California’s ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8, was not properly laid out before them. This ruling leaves laws banning same-sex marriage in place across the country, including Michigan. Fraser Trebilcock attorney, Brian Gallagher says this sends the gay marriage debate back to the states.

“The bottom line is that, at least for now, this is a state level decision,” said Gallagher. “This raises interesting issues regarding whether states banning same-sex marriage will recognize such marriages lawfully entered into in other states and the impact of that recognition, or lack thereof, in areas like employee benefits which are federally regulated, as the constitutionality of Section 2 of DOMA was not before the court.”

Michigan’s gay marriage ban, approved by 59% of voters in 2004, is the subject of a federal lawsuit in Detroit. U.S. Judge Bernard Friedman had said that he would wait on the decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court before delivering an opinion. In the meantime, state Democrats announced legislation on Monday seeking to repeal the ban.

“While today’s decision is certainly a landmark case, it leaves many issues unresolved,” Gallagher said. “The implications of today’s decision, and those that inevitably lie ahead, reach far beyond the social issues being discussed by Constitutional scholars.  We anticipate that they will have a major impact on our employee benefits clients.”


For more information, please contact Fraser Trebilcock attorney Brian Gallagher at or 517.482.5800.


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