The so-called — wrongly named — Defense of Marriage Act was both wrong and unconstitutional in 1996, and it’s wrong and unconstitutional today.
It was legalized discrimination — not to mention an abuse of the Constitution for political purposes. My vote against it — which some predicted would cost me reelection in 1996 — is among my proudest votes as a United States Senator.
But my job in 2011 isn’t to feel good about my vote — or to boast that fifteen years later, I’m vindicated when at last an American President now agrees that DOMA is unconstitutional. No, my job — and our job together —is to work to undo the damage that DOMA has done in treating loving, committed couples like second class citizens.
We know the impact of DOMA: every day, Americans are denied access to more than 1,100 federal benefits, including Social Security and numerous tax benefits -- benefits that are derived from marriage and are available to every opposite-sex married couple.
That’s why it’s long overdue to put an end to this discrimination by putting an end to DOMA. We can do that with new legislation called the Respect for Marriage Act that would restore the rights of all lawfully married couples -- gay or heterosexual. I am committed to DOMA’s repeal as quickly as possible and I believe we can make that happen through the Respect for Marriage Act.
Thankfully, DOMA is already under assault in the federal courts, one of which — here in Massachusetts — struck down a key portion of the law as unconstitutional. In a powerfully worded ruling last summer, Judge Joseph Tauro of the federal district court in Boston decimated the argument that DOMA is a legitimate effort to preserve the existing social order to buy time to digest the controversial idea of same-sex marriage.
“If the Constitution means anything, it does at the very least mean that the Constitution will not abide a bare congressional desire to harm a politically, unpopular group,” Judge Tauro wrote. He got it exactly right.
But the wheels of justice can move way too slowly, as we all know. Congress doesn’t have to wait for the courts to right the wrongs. We can do it legislatively — usually faster than the judicial system allows — and that is the aim of the Respect for Marriage Act. The Respect for Marriage Act repeals key sections of DOMA — and the immediate effect of doing away with those provisions would be that same-sex couples and their families would be eligible for important federal benefits and protections, such as family and medical leave, Social Security spousal and survivors’ benefits, and filing joint federal tax returns.
What it would not do is require states that have not yet enacted legal protections for same-sex couples to recognize any marriage. But it would guarantee that the federal government would stop discriminating against same-sex couples who were legally married in one state regardless of the state laws in another state where they may choose to live. That way, we can avoid a ridiculous situation in which, for example, a same-sex couple is married in Massachusetts, with federal rights, but loses them when a job transfer brings them to a state that does not recognize their marriage. This is an important feature because the system of federal benefits has always been based upon marriage.
On these issues, I believe America is moving in the right direction. Five states now allow same-sex couples to marry; several others recognize civil unions. Moreover, Congress finally repealed the “Don’t’ ask, don’t tell” policy that forced gay service members to live a lie in order to serve their country. The next step is to relegate DOMA to the dust bin of history.
This article originally appeared in the March 17 edition of Bay Windows.