By Lisa Keen
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a legendary civil rights activist, led off last Wednesday’s hearing to discuss repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, likening it to laws decades ago that required separate water fountains and restrooms for “whites” and “coloreds.”
“I find it unbelievable in the year 2011 that there is still a need to hold hearings and debates about whether a human being should be able to marry the person they love,” Lewis said.
But there was a hearing, and there was debate.
Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee came well prepared for battle.
No other Republican senators showed up to ask questions, and Democratic senators in support of the Respect of Marriage Act (SB 598) were also well-prepared for battle.
Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., called DOMA an “immoral and discriminatory” law and he challenged Grassley’s chief witness, an official with Focus on Family. The witness, Thomas Minnery, claimed a federal study found that children raised by a male-female married couple are happier and healthier than children raised by other families.
“I checked the study out,” said Franken, referring to a 2010 study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It doesn’t say what you said it does. It says ‘nuclear family,’ not opposite sex married families, are associated with those outcomes.”
Minnery said he understood “nuclear family” to mean heterosexual.
The study didn’t use Minnery’s definition, Franken replied. “It says ‘two parents who are married to one another and are the adopted or biological’ parents of their children. I don’t know how we can trust the rest of your testimony if you are reading studies these ways.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., opened the hearing by saying he hoped to “assess the impact” of the law on American families. He said the 1996 law “goes well beyond the harm to a family’s dignity,” harming it economically, health-wise, and in other ways.
Several of Leahy’s seven witnesses provided personal stories to illustrate those harms. Ron Wallen, a 77-year-old man from California, said his life was thrown into “financial chaos” after his life partner for 58 years succumbed after a long illness. Because he was not eligible to receive his same-sex spouse’s Social Security benefits and pension, his household income dropped from $3,050 per month to $900.
Susan Murray, an attorney who help usher in Vermont’s civil union law and who represents many same-sex couples, said many corporations believe DOMA prevents them from providing equal benefits to their employees.
DOMA does allow states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and it allows the federal government to deny giving benefits to partners of federal employees.
The mainstream media gave some attention this week to a statement by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that President Obama supports the Respect for Marriage Act.
Carney, in response to a question, said Obama “has long called for a legislative repeal” of DOMA.
“He is proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act… which would take DOMA off the books once and for all,” said Carney in a press conference last Tuesday.
Numerous LGBT groups issued statements applauding the president after Carney’s statement. They consider Obama’s support for the repeal measure specifically to be a significant step forward in his position.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, a spokesman for Obama said he had supported the repeal of DOMA since 2004. But after he became president, his Department of Justice initially mounted a vigorous defense of the law in courts, arguing, among other things, “DOMA does not discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of federal benefits.”
After considerable outrage from the LGBT community, the DOJ softened its arguments in court briefs. And then, in a dramatic announcement in February this year, Attorney General Eric Holder said that he and President Obama believe DOMA is unconstitutional and that laws disfavoring LGBT people should have to pass the strictest form of judicial scrutiny.
Rep. Lewis seemed to have been referring to President Obama when, in his remarks, he chastised those who are “comfortable sitting on the sidelines” and called on “elected officials … to lead, to be the headlights, not taillights.”
Ranking minority member Grassley was the only Republican senator to comment and ask questions during the hearing, saying – at times with the vigor of a preacher – that DOMA is “not an expression of dislike for gay and lesbian people.” He and other opponents of the bill pointed out that many of the Democrats on the committee -including Chairman Leahy and Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York – voted for DOMA in 1996.
Whelan also said that repealing DOMA would “have the federal government validate” same-sex marriage and “require taxpayers to subsidize the provisions of benefits. And, he said, repealing DOMA would “pave the way” for polygamists and other polyamorous unions to be recognized under federal law.
Bill sponsor Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said DOMA denies rights and benefits to legally married same-sex couples. And she vowed that, “However long it takes” to repeal DOMA, “we will achieve it.”
The hearing was covered live by C-SPAN and will be rebroadcast.