Pass ‘Freedom to Marry’

Author: Jo Deutsch, Freedom to Marry's Federal Director
Publication: The Hill
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2012

Click here to read the full editorial at The Hill. 

There's no denying that marriage is on the march forward. Across the nation, from New Jersey to Washington State, the freedom to marry is being discussed at dinner tables and in state legislatures. In November, we'll be fighting for marriage at the ballot in Maine and trying to fend off an anti-marriage constitutional amendment in Minnesota. And here in the nation's capital, the conversation continues to dominate the 2012 political narrative.

We've all heard about presidential candidates taking pledges to "protect marriage" from loving, committed gay and lesbian couples, but today Freedom to Marry has taken an important step forward in truly protecting marriage and restoring the tradition of respecting all marriages legally entered into in the U.S.

Over 50 groups - including some of the largest labor and civil rights groups in the country - have joined forces with Freedom to Marry and our colleagues at the Human Rights Campaign to form the Respect for Marriage Coalition. Together, we will work to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, the bill introduced last year in the House and Senate by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), respectively, that repeals the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA, which was stampeded through Congress in 1996, denies legally married gay and lesbian couples the over-1100 federal responsibilities and protections of marriage - including family insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivor benefits and the ability to file taxes jointly - and creates an unprecedented "gay exception" to marriage laws.

The Respect for Marriage Coalition comes at a critical juncture. In the eight months since Freedom to Marry launched our federal program, we've made significant progress - and together with this diverse group - will multiply that impact. Members of the coalition will lobby members of Congress to line up more sponsors with the goal of passing the Respect for Marriage Act - possibly as soon as 2013.

While some may still oppose the freedom to marry, public support is on the rise on both sides of the aisle, and our goal is more realistic than some may think. Over the last year, Freedom to Marry, has made the case for marriage to Democrats, Republicans and right-of-center Independents through a series of informal salons aimed starting conversations about marriage with influencers inside the beltway. We've also lobbied Republicans, many of whom have never been approached on our cause before; and with our colleagues at Log Cabin Republicans, we worked to make the case to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who became the first Republican cosponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act.

What Rep. Ros-Lehtinen knows, that those who are signing pledges against the freedom to marry don't realize, is that in addition to being the morally right thing to do, supporting marriage is also the politically right thing to do-especially over the long-term.

This past summer Freedom to Marry commissioned a bipartisan analysis of polling trends by Joel Benenson, president of Benenson Strategy Group and President Obama's lead pollster; and Dr. Jan van Lohuizen, president of Voter Consumer Research and former President George W. Bush's lead pollster. The two pollsters found that support for the freedom to marry rose about 1% per year over a 13-year period between 1996 and 2009 and then jumped 5% per year in 2010 and 2011. These shifts are happening in every group they looked at: seniors, Republicans, Catholics, and more.

What's more, they found that the intensity is now on our side of the issue. People who support the freedom to marry now feel more strongly than people who oppose it.

And with 70 percent of voters from 18 to 35 supporting marriage for gay and lesbian couples, there's no question that the political equation is changing quickly, and elected officials need to catch up.

Reflecting this shift in public opinion, we've seen progress both from the White House and on the Hill. Early last year, President Obama announced that the Department of Justice found DOMA unconstitutional and would no longer defend it in court. The administration also came out in strong support of the Respect for Marriage Act. In July, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing where Freedom to Marry's founder and President, Evan Wolfson, testified along with Ron Wallen, who was denied Social Security survivor benefits when his husband and partner of 58 years passed away. In November, the bill passed out of the committee.

Today, the Respect for Marriage Act has a record number of sponsors, with 136 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 32 in the Senate. This is progress, but there is still quite a bit left to do.

That is why the Respect for Marriage Coalition is more crucial than ever. We will combine our efforts and tools to lobby legislators of all political persuasions. We will use our knowledge and dedication to various causes to demonstrate why marriage matters to everyone - from members of the armed forces, to working families, to members of Congress. Our organizations will build a strong field program both through collaboration with each other and by working in our own individual capacities. Together, we'll build enough momentum to get this job done.

Deutsch is the Federal Director for Freedom to Marry and oversees the campaign's work to overturn the "Defense of Marriage Act" and end federal marriage discrimination.