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

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    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.
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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.”

“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.”

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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.

“The effect and purpose of the [repeal] bill is to have the federal government validate same-sex marriage,” said Edward Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative group.
He said the repeal of DOMA would require tax payers to subsidize federal benefits to same-sex marriages. It also threatens to pave the way for tax payer support for polygamists and other polyamorous unions, Mr. Whelan said.

In addition to the policy debate, the committee heard the real-life experiences of several individuals who are enduring significant hardships because their marriages are not recognized as legitimate by the federal government.

Ron Wallen of Indio, Calif., told the committee that he had been in a committed, 58-year relationship with his partner Tom Corrollo. The two were married in California in 2008 and pledged to support each other for the rest of their lives. But when Mr. Corrollo passed away in March, Mr. Wallen was not permitted to claim the spouse’s Social Security survivors benefit.

“That additional benefit would have done for me what it does for every other surviving spouse in America,” he said. “This is unfair. This is unjust.”

Wallen says that after losing his partner to leukemia, he is now facing the loss of his home as well.

“We served our country, paid our taxes, and got married as soon as we were able to do so,” he told the senators. “It is hard to accept that it is the federal government that is throwing me out of my own home.”

Andrew Sorbo of Berlin, Conn., worked for 35 years as a school teacher and principal before retiring in 2005. His partner of 32 years was a professor at Yale University. The couple married in Connecticut in January 2009, but four months later the professor passed away.

Because the federal government did not recognize their marriage, the professor’s federal pension checks ended with his death and the household income dropped by 80 percent, Mr. Sorbo said.

“This year I had to sell our house and downsize to a condo,” he said.

In addition, he said, he was excluded from his spouse’s health care policy, he was ineligible for Social Security survivors benefits, and they could never even file a joint tax return.

“The financial aspect of this is only one part of it,” Sorbo noted. He called their treatment by the federal government “an insult to our dignity.”

Sorbo said gay and lesbian Americans have long endured second-class treatment. “Every day of my career, I led my students in the Pledge of Allegiance. That pledge ends with the words ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ ” he said. “For 35 years I stood before my students with a blank face, but I knew inside it was not true.”

The former teacher told the senators he couldn’t understand how lawmakers could miss the a broader, historic perspective.

“This country was formed on ideals of equality and justice. We have had to struggle and fight during every generation to extend that ideal of freedom and justice to more and more groups,” he told the judiciary committee. “My group is the latest.”

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