The Senate Judiciary Committee today began debate on legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and replace it with something called the Respect for Marriage Act, setting the stage for a first vote on the measure next Thursday.
Leading the repeal effort is U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who voted in favor of DOMA when it first passed in 1996.
At the hearing, Leahy said the Respect for Marriage Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and cosponsored by 30 senators, would restore the power of the states to define marriage "without the federal government imposing its restrictive definition of marriage on the states.
"No one can dispute that the issue of marriage has traditionally been left to the states,” said Leahy, according to a statement released by his office. "Repealing DOMA would return this power to the states where it belongs. I look forward to the repeal of DOMA. This Committee taking favorable action on this bill takes us closer to that day.”
More than 42 states have laws or constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. On the flip side, five states have legalized same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia. Three states recognize same-sex marriages from other states: Maryland, New York and Rhode Island.
Vermont, which enacted civil unions in 2000, took the additional step of enacting same-sex marriage during the 2009 legislative session, when it overrode Republican Gov. Jim Douglas's veto of the legislation.
A poll conducted in August, found that most Vermonters said legalizing same-sex marriage has had "no impact on their lives." Sixty percent said it's been a non factor for them personally; 22 percent said it's had a positive effect; and 18 percent said it's had a negative impact. A strong majority — 58 percent — told Public Policy Polling that they are glad that same-sex marriage is legal, while 33 percent disagreed. And even among those who remain opposed to the law, 55 percent admitted its legalization has had no effect on their lives.
In July, Leahy (pictured at the Senate hearing with Vermonter Susan Murray) chaired the first-ever congressional hearing on proposals to repeal DOMA (see video below). The Obama administration has announced the president’s support for the Respect for Marriage Act.
When DOMA was first debated in Congress, Leahy voted in favor of it. He addressed that vote in his opening comments at today's hearing.
"When I voted for DOMA in 1996, I believed that it was a way to allow states to maintain their independence and define marriage as each state saw fit. But much has happened since DOMA’s passage to show us why it must now be repealed. Six states, including Vermont, and the District of Columbia, have now provided the recognition and protections of marriage to committed same-sex couples," Leahy said. "Unfortunately, the protections that these states provide to their married citizens are undermined by the operation of DOMA. The result is that in these states, DOMA has created a tier of second-class families who are not treated equally under the law. This runs counter to the values upon which America was founded."
The Respect for Marriage Act was introduced in March. All 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee support the legislation. A House companion bill (H.R.1116), introduced by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), has bipartisan support, including 130 cosponsors.