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New York attorney general challenges Defense of Marriage Act

By Chris Boyette, CNN
  • He says DOMA violates same-sex couples' constitutional right to equal protection under the law
  • Act defines marriage as unions between a man and woman, excludes same-sex unions
  • Challenge is part of case in which same-sex marriage widow had to pay estate taxes
  • New York's first legally recognized gay marriages took place Sunday

New York (CNN) -- In court documents filed Tuesday, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman challenged the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The controversial legislation, often called DOMA, defines marriage for federal purposes as unions only between a man and woman, and excludes same-sex unions, even those valid under state law. According to a news release from the DA's office, the filings come as part of the ongoing case of Windsor v. United States and call for the court to acknowledge Schneiderman's assertion that DOMA violates same-sex couples' constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

Windsor v. United States started with a suit filed by Edith "Edie" Windsor, who lived with her same-sex partner, Thea Spyer, for more than four decades. They married in Canada in 2007, but neither the federal government nor their home state of New York recognized the legal union.

According to court documents, Spyer died and left her estate to Windsor. Because she was not considered a legal spouse, Windsor was forced to pay the corresponding estate taxes on the inheritance. Her suit challenges this decision and seeks a refund of the money she had to pay.

In Tuesday's court brief, Schneiderman argues that "in redefining the term marriage, Section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, and must therefore be invalidated." He goes on to say that the law is an "improper intrusion on the traditional role of states in defining marriage." He says it discriminates on the basis of sexuality and sexual orientation, and "does not advance any legitimate federal interest."

Last month, New York passed the Marriage Equality Act, allowing for gender-neutral marriages for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. On Sunday, the first legally recognized gay marriages took place in the state.

During his campaign for attorney general last summer, Schneiderman pledged to get involved in the federal debate over DOMA and challenge it in the courts. In a statement from his office Tuesday, he said, "The State of New York has long recognized out-of-state, same-sex marriages, and the enactment of the Marriage Equality Act further cements our state's position on this critical civil rights issue. My office will fight every day to defend the fundamental guarantee of equal protection under law for all New Yorkers."