Equality Advocates Praise Senate Judicial Committee for DOMA Repeal Bill
GLBT equality organizations praised the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of a bill that would repeal an anti-gay law from 1996 that harms same-sex families.
The bill, called the Respect for Marriage Act, would offer basic protections for gay and lesbian families who are now denied legal recognition on the federal level thanks to the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which then-President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.
Though the bill has little chance of passing the full Senate, and virtually no chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where New York Democrat Rep. Jerrold Nadler has sponsored companion legislation, civil rights and GLBT equality advocates saw it as a sign of progress for the measure to garner approval from the committee.
"The Respect for Marriage Act will bring equality under the law to thousands of American citizens," the head of People for the American Way (PFAW), Michael Keegan, stated in a Nov. 10 press release from the organization.
"Thanks to support from Senator Leahy, Senator Feinstein and many other members of Congress, we are one step closer to ending discrimination against same-sex couples," Keegan added. "All citizens deserve the opportunity to enjoy the protections that only marriage can provide.
"Americans have come to understand that preventing committed couples from getting married causes real harm to their friends, family members and neighbors," Keegan continued. "I look forward to the day when Congress votes to enact this long overdue piece of legislation."
PFAW has created and circulated a petition to encourage lawmakers to support the new legislation.
"It’s becoming clear that the walls excluding LGBT Americans from equality under the law are coming tumbling down," text at the PFAW website’s petition page says. "The Judges and state legislatures who have come down on the side of equality are doing their jobs--now Congress and the President need to do theirs."
"Dear President Obama and Congressional Leaders," the petition reads. "It’s time to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). At this moment of change and progress, it’s time to undo a serious mistake made by Congress 14 years ago. The federal government has no business discriminating against loving families by selectively withholding the roughly 1,300 legal protections that only legal civil marriage affords.
"It’s time for the President to fulfill his promise to the American people to eliminate DOMA. And it’s time for Congress to show leadership on this issue and send him long overdue legislation to repeal this relic of hatred."
Aubrey Sarvis, the head of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, also hailed the measure’s advance. Since the repeal of another anti-gay law, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," which denied openly GLBT Americans the right to serve their country in uniform, SLDN and other advocates have pressed for the Pentagon to permit same-sex couples in which one or both members are servicemembers to wed in chapels on military bases.
"Repealing the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is a cornerstone of the work that remains to finish the job of bringing about full LGBT equality in the military," Sarvis said in a Nov. 10 SLDN media release. "Whether it’s defeated in the courts or repealed by Congress, SLDN will not rest until this discriminatory law is history."
A number of anti-gay lawmakers have objected to the idea of military members marrying same-sex life partners on in military facilities, however, even of those facilities might be located in one of the six states where marriage equality is currently legal.
The most recent of those states is New York, which began allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed last summer. But same-sex married families only have access to state level marriage, and are vulnerable to losing their legal entitlements and protections simply by crossing a state border--a situation heterosexual married couples do not face, but which DOMA imposes on same-sex couples.
The state’s attorney general offered his praise to the committee for taking action. The Respect for Marriage Act would permit couples married in one state to be recognized as a married couple when they travel to other states, in accordance with the "full faith and credit" clause of the Constitution, which guarantees that legal contracts entered into in one state will be honored in all states.
"Today’s historic vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee represents a major step forward in the fight for full equality," Eric T. Schneiderman said in a Nov. 10 release sent out by his office.
"Our office is challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act in court over its clear violation of the principle of equal justice under law as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and its interference with New York’s efforts to ensure marriage equality for its citizens," Scheiderman added. "We will fight every day to defend the fundamental guarantee of equal protection under law for all New Yorkers."
"In July, Attorney General Schneiderman challenged the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act," noted the release.
DOMA faces a number of challenges in federal court. Two cases have already resulted in rulings finding portions of DOMA to be unconstitutional. One of those cases has now progressed to an appellate court.
Republican opponents of the push to remove legal barriers that prevent gay and lesbian families from obtaining recognition fell back on familiar rhetoric.
"Traditional marriage between a man and a woman has been the foundation of our society for 6,000 years," claimed Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, who is the panel’s ranking GOP member.
"The Defense of Marriage Act protects this sacred institution, which I believe in, and attempts to dismantle this law are likely to be met with a great deal of resistance," Grassley added.
In fact, DOMA does little or nothing to protect marriage between heterosexuals, failing to address divorce, adultery, or other genuine threats to the institution. However, the law, passed in 1996 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, does enormous damage to gay and lesbian families by denying them any form of federal recognition.
During the Nov. 10 hearing on the bill, Grassley resorted to another familiar talking point, saying that sexual minorities had no grounds to draw parallels between the struggle for equality faced by gays and the civil rights struggle that African Americans engaged in to obtain full equality before the law.
To bolster his assertion, Grassley pointed to a recent op-ed by prominent civil rights advocate Wade Henderson, who heads The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Henderson’s op-ed had recently been published in the New York Times. In the piece, Henderson had taken note of the fact that many African Americans take offense at gays seeing their own civil rights struggle as analogous to that of racial minorities. Henderson also made note of a common argument that assumes gays and lesbians should be content to lie about who they are in order to avoid persecution--an option that most African Americans did not have.
But Henderson immediately fired back in a scathing volley that raked Grassley over the coals for taking his words out of context.
"Senator Charles Grassley chose to misappropriate and misconstrue statements attributed to me in a news article in order to make an illegitimate case against equality for LGBT Americans," Henderson stated. "He was wrong. Marriage equality is a civil rights issue and I am a supporter of marriage equality.
"I’ve built my reputation as a civil and human rights advocate for more than 30 years--at the ACLU, the NAACP, and in my current role as the president of the most diverse civil and human rights coalition in the nation--a coalition that was instrumental in last year’s repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell’ and for the recent passage of a disability- and LGBT-inclusive hate crimes bill," Henderson continued. "I’m profoundly disappointed that he has twisted my words in an attempt to deny millions of Americans their most basic dignity; to love one another and to raise a family.
"Civil rights are measured by a single yardstick," Henderson went on to say. "When the government bestows inheritance rights, tax benefits, adoption rights, child custody, power of attorney, and other privileges on married individuals--but denies those same basic privileges to gays and lesbians--it is a blunt and injurious denial of equality and family security.
"Marriage equality is not just a civil right," Henderson declared. "It is also an inalienable human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are multiple paths for achieving marriage equality and they all lead to the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I believe that gays and lesbians deserve the same marriage rights and privileges as the rest of us," Henderson added. "Anything less is an insult to the institution of the American family."
A Nov. 10 Associated Press article noted the various ways in which DOMA unnecessarily harms gay and lesbian families, while doing nothing to support heterosexual families.
Because DOMA singles out gay and lesbian families for exclusion from legal recognition, same-sex couples "cannot file joint federal income tax returns and take deductions available in traditional marriages," the AP article noted. "There are no spousal Social Security benefits. They can’t take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave law that protects one’s job and health insurance during emergency absences. Surviving gay spouses have no protection from estate taxes."
The overall result is that gay and lesbian families pay more out of pocket--in some cases, far more--than do heterosexual families. The economic and legal disadvantages that such families face translate into burdens that affect not only committed adults of the same gender, but also their children. Even anti-gay groups that work to prevent same-sex families from achieving legal parity have admitted as much, as when Tim Minnery admitted last summer that the anti-gay puts children of gay and lesbian parents at a financial disadvantage.
Gay and lesbian Americans and their families have gained a great deal more acceptance in recent years. For the first time, a slim majority of Americans have polled supportive of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. The nation’s lawmakers have yet to catch up to their constituents, but there are signs that even in Washington, the people are starting to be heard.
The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told the AP that his own view of the law had changed in the 15 years since it was enacted.
"I voted for DOMA as a way to allow states to maintain their independence and define marriage as each state saw fit," Leahy recounted. But now, he added, he’s come to see DOMA as fundamentally unjust because it has "created a tier of second-class families who are not treated equally under the law."