Senate Judiciary Votes to Repeal DOMA

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted 10-8 along party lines for a bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

DOMA says that same-sex marriages or civil-unions recognized by states would not be recognized under federal law, and states that do not recognize same-sex marriage would not be required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

“I believe that DOMA is discriminatory and should be stripped, in its entirety, from federal law,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the author of S. 598, the Respect for Marriage Act of 2011, said at Thursday's committee hearing.

Proponents of the bill argued it was necessary to advance freedom and equality for gays. Opponents argued that favoring the traditional definition of marriage is preferable for supporting stable families for raising children. Opponents also said the vote was a waste of time because Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will not bring it to the floor for a vote anyway.

DOMA was passed in 1996 with strong bipartisan support and signed by President Bill Clinton. Current President Barack Obama opposes same-sex marriage and supported DOMA when he was a candidate in 2008. This year, however, he decided that DOMA is unconstitutional and the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court cases.

Seven states now allow same-sex couples to enter into state-recognized marriage or civil-union contracts. Those contracts are recognized by state law but not federal law.

Due to DOMA, “there are thousands of federal benefits that are denied to same-sex couples,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-Del.) argued, such as medical leave, Social Security survivor benefits and real estate tax exemptions.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) argued that same-sex couples with a state marriage or civil-union contract are forced to “lie under oath” when they check the “single” box on their federal tax returns.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), meanwhile, argued that the bill “disrespects state regulation of marriage.” “Millions of Americans in states that have chosen not to affirm same-sex marriage will be forced to subsidize benefits for same-sex couples.”

“I thought the Defense of Marriage Act was a pretty good compromise,” Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said, because it allows each state to decide the issue. If that authority is going to be taken away from the states, Graham argued, then Americans should decide the issue through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Married couples do not have to obtain a new marriage contract if they move to another state. The Full Faith and Credit Clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution requires states to recognize contracts from other states. A repeal of DOMA raises the question of whether states that do not recognize same-sex marriages would be required to recognize same-sex marriages from states that do recognize such marriages.

Thursday's hearing confused more than informed on that question. Sen. Charles Grassley asked Feinstein, “Wouldn't states have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states?”

Feinstein didn't answer the question directly, but said, “The Respect for Marriage Act doesn't legalize marriages from other states.”