Democrats Seek Repeal of Federal ‘Defense of Marriage’ Law

Democrats in the U.S. Congress introduced legislation today that would repeal a ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriage after House Republicans said they would defend the 1996 law in court.

The Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” President Barack Obama’s administration says the law unconstitutionally discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Obama’s decision to stop defending the law against court challenges to its constitutionality prompted Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, to authorize the House’s top lawyer earlier this month to take over that task.

“Rather than prolonging litigation in the courts, Congress should act to repeal this ugly law,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who is sponsoring the House bill, said in a statement.

Five states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriages. The U.S. law bars same-sex married couples from receiving federal benefits when eligibility is determined by marital status, such as Social Security survivors’ payments or enrollment of a spouse for government retiree health-care benefits.

In the Senate, a companion measure was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California.

Introduced in 2009

Repeal legislation was first introduced in the House in 2009, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, though it never received a vote in committee or on the floor. Such a measure hasn’t previously been introduced in the Senate, said Judiciary Committee spokeswoman Erica Chabot.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who was speaker when the measure was introduced two years ago, is among 108 co-sponsors of the new measure.

“This is going to be a challenge in this Congress,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi. After taking control of Congress in 2007, Democrats decided to first push other items on their gay-rights agenda because repealing the marriage-recognition law “would be the hardest lift,” Hammill said.

The Democratic-controlled Congress passed legislation in 2009 that expanded the federal hate-crimes statute to cover attacks on gays that are motivated by hatred of them. Last year, it repealed the Defense Department’s 1993 law that banned gays from openly serving in the military.

10 Lawsuits

At least 10 lawsuits are challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Following a Justice Department review, Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that the agency no longer defend the law against those suits. Obama accepted the recommendation last month.

“Years of experience with same-sex marriage in several states has conclusively refuted the arguments” that the law was needed to protect family values, Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.

“It stands now only as a symbol of bigotry,” said Frank, who is gay.

So far, no Republicans have co-sponsored the legislation.

“We will need both Democratic and Republican members of Congress” to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

“There are high-profile Republicans who support marriage equality” and gay-rights groups will be working to get their support, Carey said. “They are not there yet.”

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