The federal court in Massachusetts got its history and constitutional law wrong with its ruling that the federal Defense of Marriage Act violates “states’ rights” and federalism in defining marriage.
For all federal law, DOMA defines “marriage” as one man and one woman and “spouse” to mean a husband or a wife. The district court struck down this federal definition of marriage in two decisions claiming that it intrudes on state sovereignty to regulate marriage, as well as other constitutional provisions.
This extreme decision ignores extensive American history showing federal oversight of the states’ definition of marriage. But a double standard on “federalism” lurks here. If states have authority under the 10th Amendment to define marriage, why are federal courts, like the one in San Francisco, not immediately upholding state constitutional definitions of marriage, such as the one currently under attack in California? Is it because California voters chose to define marriage the “wrong” way as one man and one woman?
The federal government does not infringe on that state authority when Congress defines legal terms for its own laws that it enacts. Congress needs to define marriage for such purposes as federal tax laws, veterans’ benefits, etc.
Although state governments regulate marriage, as the federal court ruled, they have no authority to redefine marriage. This is clear from the important half century of American history from the 1800s that the court ignored, of Congress requiring new states to ban polygamy (that is, define marriage as one man and one woman) as a condition of statehood.
When the Utah Territory first applied for statehood in 1848, its Mormon-dominated legislature claimed the power to legalize polygamy. Congress refused to allow it, so it conditioned Utah’s statehood on its agreement to amend its state constitution to ban polygamy. Additionally, Congress required Utah to agree that this anti-polygamy provision of its state constitution could never be changed without permission from Congress. So, when first confronted with a state seeking to redefine marriage, Congress said no.