In the campaign for marriage equality, the courts have been the most conspicuous player. But Congress also matters. A bill to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, wouldn't legalize same-sex marriage — that's beyond the power of the federal government — but it would safeguard the rights of married gay and lesbian couples to federal benefits.
Known as the Respect for Marriage Act, the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) among others, would undo DOMA. That 1996 law has two parts: It defines marriage as the "legal union between one man and one woman" for federal purposes, and it absolves states of any responsibility to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
The Respect for Marriage Act makes it clear that same-sex couples — if married in a state that recognizes their unions — will be eligible for federal benefits ranging from Social Security spousal and survivors' benefits to family leave when a partner is ill.
The conventional wisdom is that the Respect for Marriage Act can't succeed in Congress. Skeptics point to the fact that DOMA passed both the House and Senate by overwhelming margins, and was signed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. But 15 years have seen a breathtaking change in public attitudes toward gays and lesbians — and same-sex marriage. A recent Pew poll found that 45% of adults now support same-sex marriage, compared to 46% who oppose it. The same survey noted that opposition to same-sex marriage has declined by 19 percentage points since 1996, when 65% opposed it and only 27% supported it. As for DOMA, a poll this month by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights organization, found that 51% of respondents opposed the law, while 34% supported it.
Even with those numbers, the Respect for Marriage Act faces resistance in Congress, which raises the issue of presidential leadership. President Obama attracted considerable attention when he decided not to defend the constitutionality of DOMA in federal court. He should bring the same passion for equality to the debate over the Respect for Marriage Act.