August 5, 2009 at 1:00 am

Deb Price

Mass. stands up for state's right to regulate marriage

As it has done countless times before, Massachusetts has promised a former military man and his lawfully wedded spouse that -- when the time comes -- they can both be buried in a veterans' cemetery. But this time Uncle Sam is threatening to take back up to $19 million in grant money if the state keeps its pledge about the spouse's final resting place.

Why? The federal government doesn't yet recognize the same-sex couple as married.

Refusing to be bullied into discriminating, Massachusetts treats all of its married couples the same.

So it shells out an extra $2.4 million a year to make up for the Medicaid money Uncle Sam withholds as a result of treating low-income gay married couples as single.

Furious at Uncle Sam's outrageous behavior, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is suing over the 1996 law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriages. She's standing up for her state's right to regulate which of its couples may marry. Some 16,000 gay couples have wed in Massachusetts since 2004.

The so-called Defense of Marriage Act, Coakley writes, "eviscerated more than 200 years of federal government deference to the states with respect to defining marriage." The state objects to "being conscripted as an agent implementing federal policy that conflicts with Massachusetts law and violates the United States Constitution," the attorney general is telling federal courts.

"Congress may not exercise its spending power in a manner that induces a state to violate the constitutional rights of its citizens," she stresses.

The legal challenge is a wonderful milestone, marking the first time a state has gotten into the ring with Uncle Sam over the Orwellian-titled Defense of Marriage Act.

The Massachusetts lawsuit is one of the gems of the Summer of 2009, which has also featured the first presidential endorsement of same-sex marriage.

"I personally support people doing what they want to do," Bill Clinton said last month, acknowledging his change of heart. "I think it's wrong for someone to stop someone else from doing that (marrying)."

Clinton's turnabout is especially encouraging because he signed DOMA into law.

As Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry, says, "President Clinton is Exhibit A in the power of talking with people about our lives -- and not writing them off. It shows people can and do move."

But this summer also echoes with a major call to action: The right to marry is in jeopardy in Maine. Although the governor signed legislation allowing gay couples to wed, that breakthrough is on hold. Foes are likely to force the issue onto the ballot this November. (See mainefreedomtomarry.org.)

But despite that thunder cloud, the summer will be recalled with fond memories.

It's the first summer that any president has urged the repeal of DOMA. That's hugely important, as we saw recently when a federal lawsuit filed in Massachusetts by eight gay married couples and three surviving spouses had to be amended: One of the couples needed to be subbed out because the Obama-era State Department changed its policy so that gay plaintiff Keith Toney could finally get a U.S. passport under his married name.

And on Sept. 1, three weeks before summer's end, gay couples will begin marrying in Vermont as it follows the lead of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa and shows the way for New Hampshire to follow on Jan. 1.

But well before the leaves turn vivid colors, gay-friendly members of Congress are expected to introduce legislation to repeal DOMA.

With each passing season, Uncle Sam will be pushed a bit harder to keep his own promise of equal rights.

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