Senate Holds Landmark Hearing on Repealing DOMA

Jul 20, 2011 12:43pm

ABC News’ Arlette Saenz (@arlettesaenz) reports:

The Senate held the first ever hearing on the Respect of Marriage Act, which would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and extend to legally married same-sex couples the same benefits and protections provided to heterosexual married couples.

“I’m concerned that DOMA has served to create a tier of second-class families in states like Vermont.  This runs counter to the values upon which America is founded, to the proud tradition we have in this country of moving toward a more inclusive society,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chmn. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said.

Testifying before the Senate Committee, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, equated DOMA to racism and his personal experiences with discrimination.

“As a child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism and discrimination, and I did not like it.  And in 1996, when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, the taste of that old bitter fruit filled my mouth once again,” Lewis said.  “The Defense of Marriage Act is a stain on our democracy.  We must do away with this unjust, discriminatory law once and for all. It reminds me of another dark time in our nation's history, in many years when states passed laws banning blacks and whites from marrying. We look back on that time now with disbelief.  And one day we will look back on this period with that same sense of disbelief.”

But Republicans pounced on the Respect for Marriage Act and defended the constitutionality of DOMA.

“Traditional marriage is a sacred institution and serves as the cornerstone of our society. We cannot afford to devalue it with legislation like S. 598, and we must oppose any effort that would diminish the definition of marriage,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said. “The other side argues that you can't choose who you love and that a union between two men or two women is equal to that of one man and one woman.  But these are the same arguments that could be used to promote marriage between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, or even polygamist relationships.”

Ron Wallen, a 77-year-old from Indio, Calif., shared his personal experience with the restrictions placed on himself and his husband as a result of DOMA.  Wallen’s husband of 58 years, Tom Carrollo, died of leukemia in March of this year, but Wallen is unable to collect the social security benefits typically provided to widowers following their spouse’s death.

“Since Tom died on March 8, I miss him terribly and beyond the emptiness caused by the loss of the man I’ve spent my entire adult life with, my life has been thrown into financial turmoil because of DOMA,” Wallen said.  “Tom and I played by the rules as we pursued our own version of the American dream.  We served our country, we paid our taxes, we volunteered, we maintained our home,  we got married as soon as we were legally able to do so, and yet as I face a future without my spouse, it is hard to accept that it is the federal government that is throwing me out of my own home.”

Andrew Sorbo, a 64-year-old from Berlin, Vt., was forced to move out of his home following the death of his partner of nearly 30 years because he did not have access to the pension he and his partner previously relied on, despite being legally married in the state of Vermont.  He saw his income decrease by 80 percent and was not able to keep up with the payments.

“Even though we had done everything we could do to legalize our relationship and protect ourselves financially, DOMA hung over us like a dark and ominous cloud.  The financial impact due to DOMA came swiftly after Colin’s death. His federal pension checks stopped so our household income declined by 80 percent,” Sorbo said.  “This year, I had to sell our house in Cheshire and downsize to a condominium.  Leaving our home of 18 years is a moment I will never forget.”

President Obama supports the repeal of DOMA.

“The president has long called for a legislative repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which continues to have a real impact on the lives of real people –our families, friends and neighbors,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at Tuesday’s press briefing.

“He is proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act, introduced by Senator Feinstein and Congressman Nadler, which would take DOMA off the books once and for all," said Carney. "This legislation would uphold the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections as straight couples.”

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