By Aaron Blevins, 11/17/2011
Legislation Would Give Same-Sex Couples More Benefits
A federal bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and is headed for the Senate floor.
Authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the Respect for Marriage Act seeks to overturn DOMA, which defines marriage as a “union between a man and a woman,” and strips same-sex couples of federal benefits offered to married couples. The judiciary committee passed the bill 10-8.
LGBT advocacy organization Equality California is pleased with the “small victory,” but isn’t optimistic that the bill will become law, communications director Rebekah Orr said. She said Feinstein’s bill, which has a companion bill authored by Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-New York), is the first of its kind to reach the Senate floor.
“We’re in a pretty tough legislative environment for LGBT issues,” Orr said. “I think that’s pretty clear. …The truth is, this bill may not pass right now, and [Nadler’s bill] probably won’t make it to the House floor.”
However, it appears that public sentiments may have softened on LGBT issues, she said. Orr referenced the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was a “significant victory” for the LGBT community.
“The way we achieve equality is [through] a step-by-step process,” she said.
If the bill were to become law, the Respect for Marriage Act would not ensure LGBT couples the freedom to marry, Orr cautioned. She said that decision would still be made at the state level, and Equality California recently announced that it would not seek to have Prop. 8 put on the ballot in 2012.
The bill would, though, allow couples in states that permit same-sex marriage to be eligible for more than 1,000 federal benefits, including Social Security, veterans benefits and tax breaks. Orr said the LGBT community wants those benefits to help boost their families’ quality of life.
“Those benefits can help families do that, especially families with children,” she said.
In a statement, Feinstein said same-sex couples cannot file joint federal income taxes and claim certain deductions, receive spousal benefits under Social Security, take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or obtain the protections of estate tax.
“DOMA was wrong when it passed in 1996, and it is wrong now,” Feinstein said in the statement. “There are 131,000 legally married, same-sex couples in this country who are denied more than 1,100 federal rights and protections because of this discriminatory law. I don’t know how long the battle for full equality will take, but we are on the cusp of change, and today’s historic vote in the committee is an important step forward.”
Feinstein’s bill has 30 Senate co-sponsors, and it has the support of President Barack Obama. According to the statement, 70 businesses and other organizations, such as Nike, Starbucks, Google and Microsoft, joined in an amicus brief in the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals case that is challenging DOMA’s constitutionality.
Cities and municipalities have joined the fight as well. According to a statement, Gov. Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa led a group of 15 state and local leaders nationwide by signing and sending a letter in support of Feinstein’s bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Brown submitted a separate letter, referencing the 18,000 same-sex couples who were legally married before Prop. 8
“Regardless of the litigation concerning Proposition 8, the 18,000 same-sex marriages entered into in 2008 are and will remain valid,” Brown wrote. “Californians in these marriages deserve to be treated the same by the federal government and other states as Californians in other valid marriages.”
When DOMA was passed in 1996, no state permitted same-sex marriage, Feinstein said during the judiciary committee meeting. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the District of Colombia as well as Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.