Congressional Democrats Introduce Bill to Repeal Defense of Marriage Act

Congressional Democrats introduced on Wednesday, March 16, legislation that repeals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that bars the government from allowing same-sex couples to receive the same rights and benefits as a married man and woman.

“The time for dumping DOMA is long overdue, and rather than prolonging litigation in the courts, Congress should act to repeal this ugly law,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), chief sponsor of the bill.

The legislation, the Respect for Marriage Act, is co-sponsored by Reps. Nadler, John Conyers (D-Michigan) and out representatives Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) and Jared Polis (D-Colorado) in the House, as well as by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-California), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) in the Senate. The bill is seen as an acknowledgement of both the mainstreaming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and the work of activists who are demanding full federal equality under the law. But the bill also comes on the heels of a partisan war over the law, as House Republicans prepare to hire a legal team to defend it and GOP candidates spar over the role the legislation plays in American society.

“I’m extremely happy to see that these members of Congress are finally taking this kind of initiative with today’s introduction, but it begs the question of where has the aggressive organizing, support and action been for the last two years?” Robin McGehee of the LGBT advocacy group GetEQUAL told Truthout. “Now, when Republicans control the House and an even slimmer majority in the Senate, they decide to take action. In the end, its better late than never – at least they’re doing something for us.”

Following Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the Obama administration would no longer defend the law in court, House Republicans moved quickly to condemn the action. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the administration’s position “regrettable.” Soon after, House Republican leadership announced plans to defend the law in court in place of the Justice Department.

“This action by the House will ensure that this law’s constitutionality is decided by the courts, rather than by the president unilaterally,” said Boehner in a statement following a decision by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, a five-member panel consisting of the House speaker, majority leader, majority whip, minority leader and minority whip, to proceed with the law’s defense.

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But that was the least of it. Far-right politicians such as former House speaker and perennial 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich went so far as to call for hearings on Obama’s impeachment if he did not continue to defend the law. Though he later said that his statement was distorted, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona) told ThinkProgress that he would support hearings on Obama’s impeachment if he did not defend the law in court.

Yet with a recent poll suggesting that 51 percent of voters oppose DOMA, some advocates wonder about the efficacy of the House’s decision. Joe Solomnese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement: “The debate over DOMA isn’t about whether you favor marriage equality, it’s about whether the government can pick and choose which marriages they like, and which they don’t. With five states and DC granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it’s time the federal government stops playing favorites and instead creates an equal playing field for all families.”

But even as the public increasingly supports the repeal of DOMA, some advocates admittedly see little hope for passage of the Respect for Marriage Act by Congress. Nonetheless, Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, sees the legislation as a step in the right direction.

“I’m thrilled to see today’s introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act, which repeals the Defense of Marriage Act and ends federal discrimination against legally married gay couples. DOMA serves no purpose except to perpetuate discrimination against gay couples. It is based on nothing more than animus, and runs counter to our nation’s core principles of fairness and equal opportunity,” he told Truthout.