The Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federally recognized same-sex marriage, got a surprise challenge from a California bankruptcy court last week. Here’s a look at what happened and what it might mean in the future.
- A gay couple married in California. In 2008, when gay marriage was briefly legalized in the Golden State, Gene Balas and Carlos Morales wed.
- Later that year, Proposition 8 was passed. This law amended California’s constitution to exclude the right for gay couples to marry, though the state acknowledged the legitimacy of marriages that had already occurred.
- The couple filed jointly for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection. In February 2011, the couple was pushed by illness and unemployment to seek bankruptcy protection. They filed under Chapter 13, which allows filers to catch up on past debts with the help of a three- to five-year repayment plan.
- The U.S. Trustee’s office requested dismissal of the case. Because bankruptcy is governed by federal laws and the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, the U.S. Trustee wanted the California court to deny the joint bankruptcy protection. If this request had been granted, the two men would have had to file for bankruptcy individually. This could have been more expensive, both in initial filing fees and long-term debt repayment.
- The California judges refused dismissal. Instead of tossing the case out, twenty judges signed a ruling asserting that DOMA is unconstitutional and infringed the rights of the two men seeking bankruptcy protection.
Joint Bankruptcy, DOMA & Civil Rights
Right now, married couples seeking bankruptcy protection can choose between filing individually or jointly. The decision usually depends on state laws, the types of debts a couple has, a couple’s income and a number of other factors.
But because DOMA only permits marriage to a certain group of citizens, it automatically excludes others from joint bankruptcy protection. This exclusion, say California bankruptcy judges, is not in line with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
The judges used the language of the DOMA law to dispute its validity:
- The joint Chapter 13 bankruptcy, noted the judges, would have “no effect on procreation.” One of DOMA’s professed goals is to promote childbearing.
- The bankruptcy case, too, would be in no danger of “harm[ing] any marriage of heterosexual persons,” according to the California ruling. Another of DOMA’s stated goals was to defend and nurture the tradition of heterosexual marriage.
The case is getting a lot of attention because it attacks the controversial anti-gay marriage law from an unexpected angle. It also comes only months after the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA in court, as it deemed the law unconstitutional.