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Senate hearing chronicles costs of DOMA: lost dignity, financial ruin

In emotional testimony, married gay and lesbian couples testified before a Senate committee as to the costs – financial and emotional – of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Senate is considering a repeal.

By Staff writer / July 20, 2011

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, confers with Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a hearing to assess the impact of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which Feinstein is trying to repeal, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 20.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP



The Senate Judiciary Committee heard heartfelt, emotional testimony on Wednesday about how the federal Defense of Marriage Act is undercutting the financial security of gay and lesbian married couples by treating their legal, committed relationships as “second-class marriages.”

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“DOMA imposes a gay exception to the way the government treats all other married couples,” Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, told the panel. “It stigmatizes people by dividing those married at the state level into first-class marriages and second-class marriages for those the federal government doesn’t like,” he said.

“In America, we don’t have second-class citizens, and we should not have second-class marriages.”

Mr. Wolfson’s comments came during a two-hour Senate hearing to examine financial and other impacts of DOMA. The law, passed in 1996 and signed by President Clinton, restricts the receipt of federal benefits to marriages between one man and one woman. It bars gay and lesbian married couples from taking advantage of some 1,100 federal benefits, ranging from filing joint tax returns to qualifying for side-by-side burial in a US military cemetery.

A group of senators and members of Congress have introduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which is an effort to repeal DOMA. Doubts persist over whether the bill can pass the Republican-controlled House.

The Respect for Marriage Act seeks to broaden the definition of marriage to entitle gay and lesbian married couples to the full range of federal rights and benefits currently available only to heterosexual married couples.
Couples who are in a legal domestic partnership or civil union will not be eligible for the federal benefits unless they are also legally married.
Six states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage. Those states are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.

Forty-one states ban same-sex marriage.

DOMA supporters say public opinion favors the current definition of marriage as between one man and one woman as husband and wife. “Thirty-one times Americans have voted on marriage and all 31 times they voted to affirm one man and one woman,” said Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa.

Other supporters note that when DOMA was passed 15 years ago, gay and lesbian couples had no statutory marriage rights in any state. The law did not disenfranchise anyone, they say.