The Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is an important statute influencing the administration of employee benefits. DOMA, which became law in 1996, is a statute defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife. DOMA also defines "spouse" as a person of the opposite sex. This law, which is drafted in just a few short paragraphs, has far-reaching implications. DOMA in essence requires that benefits coverage extended to non-dependent same-sex individuals must be taxable to the employee. It also prohibits the extension of true COBRA coverage and HIPAA special enrollment rights to same-sex partners.
In a recent court case, Massachusetts v. HHS, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that it is unconstitutional for DOMA to limit federal recognition of marriage to marriage between a man and woman. The court found that because it denies participants in same-sex unions the same federal benefits that participants in opposite-sex unions receive, the statute violates equal protection principles in the Due Process clause. The court also discussed the appropriate technical legal standard for reviewing the constitutionality of the law. The holding specifically stated that it did not depend on any finding that DOMA was motivated by anti-homosexuality leanings. However, the court did analogize their analysis of DOMA to other court cases implicating historically disadvantaged or unpopular groups.
While DOMA remains law, this recent court decision suggests that the Supreme Court may, in the future, consider the constitutionality of the hotly contested law. Any change in the constitutionally of DOMA will have far reaching benefits implications.