DOMA Repeal Supporters Seek Senate Hearings

Author: Chris Johnson
Publication: The Washington Blade
Publication Date: March 23rd, 2011

Read the story at The Washington Blade.

Supporters of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act are calling on the Senate to hold hearings on the impact the denial of the federal benefits and responsibilities of marriage is having on married same-sex couples throughout the United States.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York-based Freedom to Marry, said hearings before the Senate could help raise the level of discussion on marriage on Capitol Hill.

“One of Freedom to Marry’s top goals is to take the marriage conversation in Washington, D.C., to a higher level — putting real faces, presenting the real evidence and dispelling the bogus arguments — to give elected officials and other policy makers a better understanding of why marriage matters,” Wolfson said. “Holding hearings is certainly one important opportunity for us to help continue the momentum in support of overturning DOMA and ending marriage discrimination.”

A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also emphasized the importance of hearings as legislative repeal remains unlikely during the 112th Congress.

“One of the key steps that senators can take to build momentum is to have a hearing, or hearings, on the topic,” the aide said. “I think a thorough and perhaps even a dramatic hearing could galvanize opinion in the Senate and hopefully even serve as a galvanizing moment more broadly in the public.”

As a result of DOMA, which was passed by Congress in 1996,  married same-sex couples cannot participate in federal programs. For instance, they can’t file joint federal income taxes, receive spousal benefits under Social Security or obtain exemptions of the estate tax law upon the death of one of the spouses.

Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation in the Senate known as the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the anti-gay statute. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has introduced companion legislation in the House. Neither piece of legislation has any Republican co-sponsors.

Favorable hearings on DOMA repeal are unlikely in the House with Republicans in control of the chamber. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has spoken out in support of maintaining the anti-gay statute.

Consequently, the decision on whether to hold hearings rests with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Known as an LGBT advocate, Leahy is among the co-sponsors of the DOMA repeal legislation.

A Judiciary Committee spokesperson said she couldn’t provide a comment on whether Leahy intends to hold hearings during the 112th Congress because he’s currently serving as part of a congressional delegation overseas.

Even with support growing in the Senate, the repeal legislation faces tremendous odds against reaching President Obama’s desk during the 112th Congress with Republicans in control of the House. Even with Democrats in control of the upper chamber, reaching the 60-vote threshold for passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate would be challenging.

Maggie Gallagher, chair of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, told the Washington Blade via e-mail that she would appreciate the opportunity to speak at a congressional hearing on marriage, but questioned why they would need to take place if DOMA repeal legislation has no chance of passage.

“I certainly would welcome a chance to make the case for DOMA again, personally, however I think it would be rather silly for the Senate to waste its time on hearings on a bill that has exactly zero chance of passage,” she said.

But Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, said hearings could be part of the plan that would bolster support for passage of the legislation in the Senate.

“If we’re able to get Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, I think the right thing to do would be obvious for a lot of senators,” Socarides said. “It’s possible at some point before the end of this Congress, we could have a majority of senators who understand the importance of repealing this law. … It’s very important to make progress and hearings could be an important part of that.”

Despite the challenges in passing DOMA, a change in administration policy and growing public support for same-sex marriage is changing the landscape for the statute’s repeal.

Last month, President Obama announced he believes DOMA is unconstitutional and that the U.S. Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court against litigation. House Speaker John Boehner has directed the House general counsel to take up defense of the statute in court.

Additionally, a Washington Post-ABC News poll published last week found 53 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage and significant gains in support for same-sex marriage in religious communities. The poll indicates a 23-point in support increase among white Catholics, a 16-point increase among nonevangelical white Protestants, and an 11-point increase among evangelicals.

The Senate Democratic aide said both these developments will have a “big impact” on generating support for the eventual overturning of DOMA. Additionally, the aide said the success last year of passing legislation allowing for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal created a climate that could allow for DOMA repeal.

“We saw these unexpected Republicans like Richard Burr and John Ensign voting for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal and I think that part of the message that I’m hearing from people who are pushing DOMA repeal along is that if a gay person is good enough to fight and die for their country now openly, then why should they also have the right to marry?” the aide said. “I think that’s a powerful sort of one-two punch.”