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US Appeals Court hears opening arguments in DOMA challenge

Constitutionality of federal ban on gay marriage being challenged for first time

With a federal courtroom in Boston packed with more than 100 inlookers, opening arguments took place Wednesday (4 April) in a case that challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for the first time.

DOMA defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. It was passed by both houses of Congress by wide margins in 1996 and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.

A three-judge panel on the First Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in two separate cases that test the law as never before.

Last year, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA.  Now defending the law in court is attorneys hired by the Republican leadership of the US House of Representatives.

But the Obama administration still had a presence in the courtroom represented by Stuart Delery, the acting assistant attorney general for the civil division.

Delery told the judges that congress's intent to single out gay and lesbian couples for discrimination was clear from the name of the bill itself: 'It's a defense against something, and that defense was [against] same-sex couples.'

Delery, who is gay, also said: 'To be clear, your honor, the direction from the president and the attorney general has been that the department will cease defending Section 3 of DOMA on any basis, so I’m not here to defend it under any standard.'

Paul Clement, a former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, represented the US House of Representatives in court Wednesday.

Judge Juan Tourella asked Clement what the 'rational basis' for the legislation is and if ' there any prior statute which defines marriage?'

Clement answered 'yes and no' to the judge's second question and acknowledged that it is fair to say that DOMA is 'the first comprehensive effort to apply a definition of marriage across the federal code.'

The cases at the center of the appeal are Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which was filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

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