Repealing Defense of Marriage Act is cast as a civil rights matter

During a Senate panel hearing on the issue, the 1996 law that bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits is decried as unjust.

July 21, 2011|By Christine Mai-Duc, Washington Bureau
  • Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) confers with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on whether to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) confers with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — By the time Ron Wallen and Tom Carrollo married in 2008, they had already lived most of their "good times and bad" as a same-sex couple. They'd been together for 55 years, and Carrollo had just been diagnosed with lymphoma.

When Carrollo died in March, Wallen received another devastating blow: Unable to collect survivor's benefits from his partner's Social Security, Wallen's monthly income dropped from $3,050 to $900, he said — not enough to cover the mortgage on the couple's home.

"Tom and I have played by the rules as we pursued our version of the American dream. … We served our country, we paid our taxes, we volunteered in our community," Wallen told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. "This is unjust."

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Wallen's sense of injustice was one of the major themes in a hearing on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits. The repeal bill, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would allow the estimated 50,000 to 80,000 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.

Repeal proponents say individual states should decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage. But in Wednesday's hearing, they focused on the issue as a matter of civil rights.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was invited to testify, compared it to his childhood during segregation in the South.

"My entire childhood, I followed signs that said, 'white restrooms, colored restrooms, white water fountains, colored water fountains,' " Lewis said. "We look back on that time now in disbelief, and one day we will look back on this period with that same sense of disbelief. … All across this nation, same-sex couples are denied the very rights that you and I enjoy."

But Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family, which opposes gay marriage, said there was a "mountain of evidence" that showed the best environment for children was an "intact home with a married father and mother." Minnery noted that voters in 31 states had rejected gay marriage.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who described himself as "a man of faith," supported repeal. "I don't think my faith empowers me to have a monopoly on the interpretation of the will of God. … In my view, the Defense of Marriage Act is just wrong; it's wrong and it needs to be repealed."

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