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Frequently Asked Questions: Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

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Answers to the most commonly asked questions about the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act," what it does, and what the legal challenges to it are.

Section 3 of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" has been declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Committed same-sex couples who are legally married in their own states can now receive federal protections - like Social Security, veterans' benefits, health insurance and retirement savings. DOMA at the Supreme Court.

Find out more at glaad.org/marriage

Click here to find GLAAD's Marriage Equality at the Supreme Court resources!

Frequently asked questions

What is DOMA?

The so-called "Defense of Marriage Act," or DOMA, was passed in 1996 by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The part that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court is called "Section Three," which prevented the federal government from recognizing any marriages between gay or lesbian couples for the purpose of federal laws or programs, even if those couples are considered legally married by their home state. The other significant part of DOMA makes it so that individual states do not legally have to acknowledge the relationships of gay and lesbian couples who were married in another state. Only the section that dealt with federal recognition was ruled unconstitutional.

What is Section Three of DOMA?

Section Three is the part that prevented the federal government from recognizing any marriages between gay or lesbian couples for the purpose of federal laws or programs, even if those couples are considered legally married by their home state.

What is the status of DOMA right now?

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down Section 3 of DOMA which prevented the federal government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples, because it violated the constitution’s “equal protection” promise.

The Supreme Court case did not challenge Section 2 of DOMA. Section 2 declares that all states and territories have the right to deny recognition of the marriage of same sex couples that originated in states where they are legally recognized. Who were the plaintiffs in the DOMA case?

Edith Windsor lead the case against the United States after she was forced to pay over $363,000 in estate taxes after her same-sex spouse died. The federal government did not recognize her marriage, and this outcome was the result. Following a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that found DOMA to be unconstitutional, Windsor’s marriage will be federally recognized.

Because DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, does that make marriage equality legal throughout the country?

No. It means the federal government has to recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples. Because of Section 2 of DOMA, the ruling does not require any state to legalize or recognize a lawful marriage from another state.

How does the ruling on DOMA affect families?

The ruling on DOMA will have major effects on families concerning a number of different federal rights which provide necessary marital benefits. Some areas that are affected include military family benefits, social security benefits, multiple areas of tax categories, hospital visitation rights, and healthcare benefits. These are just a few of the numerous marital benefits that were denied to families because of DOMA, but will now be granted to same-sex couples in legal marriages.

Those that are married in a state where marriage equality is legal, but live in a state where it is not may have a harder time receiving benefits. Because different organizations base benefits off of where a couple lives, as opposed to where they were married, those who are legally married but live in a state without marriage equality may not be privy to the newly accessible benefits.

How does the ruling on DOMA affect binational families?

Because the federal government now recognizes benefits under DOMA, binational couples will be allowed to sponsor foreign-born spouses for United States residency. Individuals who are legally married have begun to receive green cards following the Supreme Court decision on DOMA.

How does the ruling on DOMA affect military families?

A military family living in a state with marriage equality will be granted federal benefits now that DOMA is repealed. These well-earned benefits include, military health insurance, increased base and housing allowances, relocation assistance, and surviving spousal benefits.

The Department of Defense will extend all benefits to same-sex spouses of military personnel that are currently extended to opposite-sex spouses, including medical, dental, interment at Arlington National Cemetery, and with-dependent Basic Allowance for Housing. The Department will implement these benefit changes as soon as possible for same-sex spouses.

How does the repeal of DOMA affect the average family?

It strengthens protections for families. Expanding the federal protections of marriage to all married loving, committed couples and their families will allow them to take better care of each other and be responsible for each other. Stronger families lead to stronger communities.

Why was it important to get rid of Section 3 of DOMA?

The repeal of section 3 of DOMA creates a major increase in protections for same-sex couples in the United States. This grants legally married same-sex couples the same benefits received by their straight peers including:

  • Health insurance and pension protections for federal employees' spouses
  • Social security benefits for widows and widowers
  • Support and benefits for military spouses
  • Joint income tax filing and exemption from federal estate taxes
  • Immigration protections for binational couples
  • Rights to creative and intellectual property
  • Political contribution laws 

What about opponents' claims that DOMA was needed to protect children?

Anti-gay activists are constantly implying that children of straight parents are better off than children of gay or lesbian parents. Usually they claim that "studies show children do best with a mother and a father," citing studies that compared children of two-parent homes to children of single-parent homes. Those studies did NOT compare children of spouses of straight couples to children of gay and lesbian couples. All of the US's leading mainstream medical, educational and psychological associations overwhelmingly agree that children of gay and lesbian couples fare just as well as children of straight couples.

For example; The American Academy of Pediatrics says: "[S]cientific literature demonstrates" that same-sex couple children "fare as well." The American Psychiatric Association says: "Research indicates that optimal development for children is based not on the sexual orientation of the parents." The American Psychological Association says: "There is no scientific basis for concluding that lesbian mothers or gay fathers are unfit parents on the basis of their sexual orientation." The American Psychoanalytic Association says: "Gay and lesbian individuals and couples are capable of meeting the best interest of the child." The Child Welfare League of America says: "Any attempt to preclude or prevent gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals or couples from parenting, based solely on their sexual orientation, is not in the best interest of children."

And there is a mountain of evidence to back those groups up.

A study published in 2010 in the journal Demography concludes that children being raised by gay and lesbian couples have almost exactly the same educational achievement as children raised by married heterosexual couples. Data released in 2010 from the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Studyfound that "[c]ompared to the traditionally reared teens, adolescents with lesbian parents rated significantly higher in social, academic and total competence," and that "teens with lesbian parents also rated significantly lower when it came to social problems, rule-breaking and aggressive behavior than teens raised in more traditional families."

This isn't just a recent development, either. A report published in the American Sociological Reviewback in 2001 examined 21 studies which "almost uniformly (found) no notable differences between children reared by heterosexual parents and those reared by lesbian and gay parents..." And in a study presented at the 1997 national meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development, research psychologist Charlotte Patterson said, "When you look at kids with standard psychological assessments, you can't tell who has a lesbian parent and who has a heterosexual parent."