Senate Democrats Move to Repeal Law Opposing Same-Sex Marriage

on November 10 2011 1:01 PM
DOMA
U.S. senators on Thursday passed out of committee a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. REUTERS

U.S. senators on Thursday passed out of committee a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

The DOMA repeal legislation, called the Respect for Marriage Act, would provide legally married same-sex couples access to more than a 1,000 federal benefits.

Senators voted along party lines, 10-8, to advance the bill out of the Judiciary Committee for a full senate vote. At Thursday's committee hearing, Republicans opposed repealing DOMA, citing the need to focus on the economy and its effect on states to regulate their own marriage laws.

Democrats Say Law Prevents Full Equality

Democrats, however, argue that DOMA prevents same-sex couples from achieving full equality in states that have allowed them to marry.

Repealing DOMA, at least in the current Congress, is near impossible, as Republicans control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Republican House leadership hired outside counsel to defend the constitutionality of DOMA in lawsuits when the Obama administration declined to do so.

Republicans were even skeptical that the repeal bill could pass the Senate.

Schumer Sees Barriers Falling, If Not Now, Later

Nonetheless, Democrats pressed on with their legislation. New York's Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat, said that discriminatory policies in the past, like prohibiting interracial marriages, have been removed, as will DOMA.

Those barriers fell and these barriers will fall too, Schumer said. One day, we will debate full marriage equality and that will pass.

There are seven states and Washington, D.C., that allow gay couples to get married. Nearly 40 states have passed their own version of DOMA, with more than two dozen defining in their constitutions marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

At stake for gay married couples are federal benefits that Schumer said are felt the most in times of vulnerability. For instance, a married gay person cannot take time off from work to care for a sick spouse under the Family and Medical Leave Act, receive Social Security survivor benefits or take advantage of a tax exemption when couples buy property.

In the eyes of the federal government, these couples will remain strangers with none of the responsibilities or privileges of matrimony, Schumer said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, detailed the impact DOMA has on businesses, forcing companies to maintain sets of books for same-sex and heterosexual marriages. Of the 70 corporations and businesses that want DOMA repealed include Microsoft, Starbucks, Google and Nike.

When DOMA passed, no one was affected because no one was married, Feinstein said. The discriminatory nature of DOMA is showing up throughout the business and professional communities.

Though Democrats repeatedly stressed that repealing DOMA would allow states to take back control of marriage laws in their state, Republicans remained unconvinced.

Grassley: DOMA Is About Stable Families

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee, said that states would be forced to recognize out of state marriages.

He also disagreed that legalizing same-sex marriages is akin to the legalization of interracial marriages. Prohibiting gay marriage, he posited, is about maintaining marriage between a man and a woman, while laws against interracial marriage were about racism.

This debate is about stable families, good environments for raising children and religious beliefs. It's not about discriminating against anyone, Grassley said.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, worried about the cost of providing new federal benefits to same-sex couples at a time when federal spending is out of control and our entitle programs are unsustainable.

Cornyn said that Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid would have a revolution in his own caucus if the Nevada Democrat brought the DOMA-repeal bill up for a vote. Cornyn also pointed out that the Senate Democratic leadership supported DOMA in 1996 and suggested that the change among Democrats was politically motivated.

Durbin retorted that he was wrong to support DOMA 15 years ago.

I readily acknowledge my views on the subject have changed. It isn't because I'm calculating votes, he said. It's because, as a matter of principle, it's the right thing to do.

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