On November 10, the Democrat-led Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 in support of the Respect for Marriage Act, the bill that would repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The vote for the bill fell along party lines.
According to NPR, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who introduced the bill, told reporters that “it’s pretty clear that the time has come to repeal DOMA. When DOMA was passed [in 1996, during the Clinton Administration], no one was affected because [gays could not legally marry], because no state had passed a law. That’s changed now.”
In a statement on her website, Feinstein elaborated, “DOMA was wrong when it passed in 1996 and it is wrong now. There are 131,000 legally married, same-sex couples in this country who are denied more than 1,100 federal rights and protections because of this discriminatory law. I don’t know how long the battle for full equality will take, but we are on the cusp of change, and today’s historic vote in the committee is an important step forward.”
The Respect for Marriage Act is the primary legislative tool for repealing DOMA through Congressional action. Several lawsuits, including Windsor v United States and Perry v Brown, also seek to ultimately repeal DOMA through the judiciary. If the anti-gay law is abolished through either means, gay and lesbian couples could be given access to scores of federal benefits that straight married couples expect.
These rights and protections include filing joint federal income taxes and claiming additional deductions, receiving spousal Social Security benefits, taking unpaid leave to care for family members under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and obtaining the protections of the estate tax when one spouse dies and wants to leave his or her possessions to the surviving spouse.
In addition to Sen. Feinstein, the Respect for Marriage Act has 30 Senate co-sponsors. One is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate Judiciary chairman and senior Senator from the first state to legalize civil unions and one of the first to allow same-sex marriages. Leahy explained his support of the act to USA Today: “[Because of DOMA], thousands of American families are now being treated unfairly by their federal government. They are singled out from all other marriages recognized by their states.”
Rick Jacobs, the chair and founder of the Courage Campaign, an online, grassroots political group fighting for progressive causes, applauded the committee’s move. “This truly historic vote today should never have been necessary because this absurd law should never have been on the books,” Jacobs said in a statement. “The Republicans think this is a partisan issue, but then some thought the same about the other great civil rights issues of this nation. Eventually, America is just.”
Opponents of the Respect for Marriage Act won’t go down without a fight, however. According to USA Today, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s ranking Republican—and the senior Senator from another state that legalized same-sex marriage—called it “simply wrong to claim that the bill would create federal benefits for all lawfully married couples. In reality, it would create federal benefits for many same-sex couples who are not married.”
Grassley disagreed with the bill’s federal recognition of a same-sex marriage even if the legally married couple moves to a state that doesn’t recognize their union.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), an original sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, said in a statement that “this is a major step forward to end the discrimination that is currently enshrined into U.S. law, and I applaud Chairman Leahy for pushing us forward. Marriage is the true foundation for strong families. Every loving, committed couple deserves the basic human right to get married, start a family, and have access to all the same rights and privileges that my husband and I enjoy. No politician should stand in the way of this fact.”
“If Democrats and Republicans can come together to do what’s right in New York, I know we can do the same in Congress to do what’s right for all of America,” she added, referring to the successful passage, with Republican support, of the Marriage Equality Act in New York last June.
The Respect for Marriage Act will presumably move to the full Senate for debate, but no date has been set for the bill’s introduction.