This morning my five-year-old daughter asked me if girls could marry girls and boys could marry boys. My standard response to this question has always been “of course, people can marry whomever they want.” Today, I considered the more complicated and truthful answer which is that they should be able to marry whomever they want but, unfortunately, that’s only true in some states. We’ve discussed this many times before so I have no idea what prompted the question today and she has no idea how timely it really was.
Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the Respect for Marriage Act. Introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the new legislation would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and allow those same-sex couples who have wed in the District of Columbia or any of the six states where such marriage is legal to enjoy benefits under family leave laws, Social Security, and federal tax codes.
DOMA, which was passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, ensured that no state had to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex that had been performed in any other state or jurisdiction, and defined marriage, for federal purposes, as a union between one man and one woman. Prior to DOMA the federal government had traditionally recognized any state’s valid marriages.
At the hearing, a number of gay and lesbian individuals testified about how being denied the federal benefits of marriage because of DOMA had impacted their lives. One 77-year-old man explained how the death of his partner of 58-years (whom he married during the brief window in which California legalized same-sex marriage) has been made far more difficult because he is not able to collect his partner’s social security benefits and is now forced to sell their home which he cannot afford. Similarly, a 64-year old man described how his household income went down by 80 percent after the death the partner of 30-years, whom he had legally married in Vermont, because he could not collect his partner’s federal pension checks.
A number of lawmakers testified that DOMA was unfairly discriminatory. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said:
“I’m concerned that DOMA has served to create a tier of second-class families in states like Vermont. This runs counter to the values upon which America is founded, to the proud tradition we have in this country of moving toward a more inclusive society.”
Representative John Lewis (D-GA) compared DOMA to racial segregation:
“As a child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism and discrimination, and I did not like it. And in 1996, when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, the taste of that old bitter fruit filled my mouth once again. The Defense of Marriage Act is a stain on our democracy.”
Not all lawmakers, however, felt the same the way as some argued about the importance of the existing law. Representative Steve King (R-IA) argued that:
“Traditional marriage is a sacred institution and serves as the cornerstone of our society. We cannot afford to devalue it with legislation like S. 598 [the Respect for Marriage Act], and we must oppose any effort that would diminish the definition of marriage.”
He went on to invoke a classic slippery slope argument: “The other side argues that you can’t choose who you love and that a union between two men or two women is equal to that of one man and one woman. But these are the same arguments that could be used to promote marriage between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, or even polygamist relationships.”
Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue also testified. Tom Minnery of the conservative group Focus on the Family, argued in favor of DOMA citing a study that he said suggests that children do better in families headed by a married man and woman. Senator Al Franken (D-MN), however, took him to task for misreading that study which, in actuality, says that children do better in nuclear families defined as “one or more children living with two parents who are married to each other, and who are each biological or adoptive parents of all the children in the family.” Franken pointed out that married gay and lesbian parents were counted in this definition and went on to say to Minnery: “…I frankly don’t know how we can trust the rest of your testimony, if you are reading studies this way.”
Without Republican support it is unlikely that the Respect for Marriage Act will pass though President Obama recently announced his support for the legislation which would “take DOMA off the books once and for all.” Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, explained: “This legislation would uphold the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections as straight couples.” Feinstein, who was one of only 14 Senators who voted against DOMA in 1996, for one is not giving up: “This must change. However long it takes, we will achieve it.”
And that is why I did not give Charlie the more complicated answer to her question this morning. Because I am confident that by the time she is anywhere near marrying age, she will have the right to choose whomever she would like to be her legally recognized partner. Then we can look back at this law as we do laws that preventing Whites and Blacks from marrying and see them for what they (hopefully) are—discriminatory, ridiculous, and gone for good.