A first: Senate committee votes to repeal DOMA

WASHINGTON (BP) -- A Democratic-controlled Senate committee passed a bill Thursday that would overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, marking the first time that a committee in either chamber of Congress had acted to reverse the 1996 law that gives states the ability to make their own marriage laws.

The vote itself was a sign that supporters of gay "marriage" had made strides in the 15 years since the law passed. In 1996, DOMA passed overwhelmingly with margins of 85-14 in the Senate and 342-67 in the House. On Wednesday, a bill to repeal that very law passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 10-8 -- with three Democratic members who voted for DOMA in 1996 now voting to overturn it.

All 10 Democrats voted for the bill and all eight Republicans opposed it.

The bill, S. 598, won't become law anytime soon, because it has only 30 co-sponsors -- all Democrats -- and apparently is short the necessary votes in the full Senate. Even if it passed the Senate, the Republican-controlled House wouldn't take it up. President Obama supports it.

Long a target of gay activists, the Defense of Marriage Act has two functions: 1) it defines marriage as between a man and a woman in federal law and 2) it gives states the option of not recognizing another state's gay "marriages."

Since DOMA was signed into law in '96, more than 40 states have passed either laws or constitutional amendments explicitly defining marriage in the traditional sense.

"Under DOMA, states can define marriage however they want," Sen. Charles Grassley, R.-Iowa, said. "They can decide for themselves whether they will recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Under this bill, by contrast, states that recognize only traditional marriages will be required to honor same-sex marriages for purposes of federal law."

Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, argued that DOMA actually harms states' rights by preventing gay couples in states where gay "marriage" is legal from receiving federal benefits.

Republicans, though, said the focus should be on the 44 states where gay "marriage" is not legal. DOMA, they said, protects those states.

"It is no secret that advocates want to use the courts to force states to legalize or recognize same-sex marriage," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, said.

The strategy, Hatch said, includes using Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution to sue in court and force states to recognize gay "marriages" from outside their borders. Article IV says that states must give "Full Faith and Credit" to the "public acts, records, and judicial proceedings" of other states. If marriage is one of those "public acts" or "records," Hatch said, then all 50 states could be forced to recognize gay "marriage" if DOMA is repealed.

Significantly, Article IV also gives Congress power to regulate the full faith and credit of states -- something Congress did by passing DOMA, Hatch said.

Repealing DOMA, Hatch said, "would mean that these very states might be forced by courts to recognize, as valid, marriages that their own constitutions and laws prohibit."

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut voted for the bill and said the day marked a turning point.

"The vote will mark a historic and dramatic step forward in the fight for social justice in this country," he said minutes before the vote. "... There's no certainly about when the vote on the floor of the Senate will be, but the cause of justice will be advanced when this committee votes today in favor of repealing DOMA."

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said there are Democrats who oppose the bill.

"I don't believe we'll have this bill brought up on the floor -- not because of the [lack of] time but because a lot of our Democratic colleagues don't want to vote on it, because it's not popular [and] it's not going to become law," Sessions said.

Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Herb Kohl (Wis.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.) all voted for DOMA in 1996 but voted to repeal it Thursday.


Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. A list of Senate sponsors of the repeal bill is available online at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:SN00598:@@@P. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).