U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a legendary civil rights activist, led off Wednesday’s historic 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.”
But there was a hearing, and there was debate. And there was strong emotion.
Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee came well prepared to do battle, bringing in a full complement of his allowed witness, minus one whom he said was afraid to testify against repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for fear of being harassed.
But no other Republican senator showed up to ask questions and Democratic senators in support of the Respect of Marriage Act (SB 598) were also well-prepared to do battle.
Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) called DOMA an “immoral and discriminatory” law and he challenged Grassley’s chief witness, an official with the mammoth Focus on Family group. The witness, Thomas Minnery, had 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,” said Franken. The hearing room erupted in laughter. “It says ‘nuclear family,’ not opposite sex married families, are associated with those outcomes.”
Minnery said he understood “nuclear family” to mean heterosexual.
“It doesn’t,” said Franken, bluntly. “The study defines a nuclear family as ‘one of more children living with two parents who are married to one another and are each the biological or adopted parents of all the children in the family,’ and I frankly don’t really 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 called the hearing 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, often dramatic, stories to illustrate those harms. Ron Wallen, a 77-year-old man from Indio, 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, said Wallen, his household income dropped from $3,050 per month to $900 per month.
Susan Murray, an attorney who help usher in Vermont’s landmark civil union law and who represents numerous same-sex couples, said many people simply did not understand what a civil union was. And she said she has found that many corporations believe DOMA prevents them from providing equal benefits to their employees.
“Companies think the law allows them to discriminate,” said Murray.
Andrew Sorbo, a history teacher in Catholic schools in Connecticut, talked about “always having to use the pronoun ‘I’” in his classroom.
“I could not say ‘we are going on vacation because the next question would be ‘Who is the other person’,” noted Sorbo, “and would lead to lots of other problems.”
“DOMA,” he said, is an insult to our dignity and our sense of equality.” He said he was “appalled and baffled” by those in Congress who oppose same-sex marriages “can’t understand how they are the philosophical descendants of those who defended slavery, who defended the laws against mixed race couples, and who defended the laws that allowed the separate but equal statutes that Rep. Lewis spoke of.”
The mainstream media gave some attention this week to a statement by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, during a routine briefing on Tuesday, 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.
Numerous LGBT groups issued statements, applauding the statement from Carney that the president supports the Respect of Marriage Act. 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 –both sections– 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 of 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. The fact that they voted for DOMA, said Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “refutes the empty revisionist claim that DOMA embodies an irrational bigotry against same-sex couples.”
Whelan said it is “a profound confusion to believe that the values of federalism somehow require the federal government to defer to or incorporate the marriage laws of the various states in determining what marriage means in the provision of federal benefits.”
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.), who chaired the committee for a portion of the hearing, 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 from time to time.South Carolina