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Widower of Congressman Fights for Same-Sex Marriage Benefits


Dean Hara was married to U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds, the first openly gay man in Congress. Hara and Studds married in Massachusetts on May 24, 2004, shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized in the state. Studds passed away October 14, 2006 after suffering a pulmonary embolism, and his widower ran into some problems.

Gay marriage has been legalized in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but same-sex marriages are not recognized under federal law. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, Hara has been unable to receive the pension generally provided to surviving spouses of former members of Congress or Studds' Social Security benefits.

Under the Defense of Marriage Act, states are not obligated to treat same-sex couples who were legally married in another state as married couples. The law also specifies that the federal government will under no circumstances recognize same-sex marriages. This means, among other things, that same-sex married couples may not file joint federal tax returns or collect a deceased spouse's Social Security benefits. In total, there are more than 1,000 federal laws that differentiate on the basis of marital status. So long as the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect, same-sex spouses who are legally married are considered single under each and every one of those laws.

The Defense of Marriage Act was passed under the Clinton administration, in anticipation that some states would pass laws legalizing gay marriage. During his campaign, President Obama said he would repeal the law.

On March 3, the law officially came under fire when Boston-based legal group Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) filed a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of a group of same-sex spouses and widowers. Hara is one of those litigants.

The lawsuit was filed in Boston and directly challenges the Defense of Marriage Act directly by claiming a provision of it is discriminatory because it denies married gay couples access to a large number of federal programs and legal protections provided to opposite-sex married couples.

This isn’t the first challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, but it’s the first group litigation challenging the Constitutionality of the law. Given past rulings, it seems unlikely that the United States Supreme Court would rule the law unconstitutional, and the case could take years to wind its way through the legal system. Given President Obama’s statements on the law, it is entirely possible that the case will become moot through changes to the law or outright repeal before the high court is asked to make a determination.

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