November 10, 2011 Print
Capitol Building

Committee Sends DOMA Repeal Bill to Senate Floor

by Karla Dial

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 today to send a bill effectively repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to the full Senate.

The party-line vote may have gotten S. 598, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s “Respect for Marriage Act,” out of the committee, but its prospects in the full Senate are far less certain: Feinstein admitted the votes aren’t there right now, and the U.S. House of Representatives still supports DOMA, the 15-year-old law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman in federal policy.

At press time, word was circulating on Capitol Hill that Democrats might try to add S. 598 to a Department of Defense authorization bill coming up in the near future to increase its chances of passing with less public scrutiny.

In a turn of good news, however, a group that advises the U.S. House of Representatives weighed in on a court challenge to DOMA this week, saying the federal law must be obeyed. The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) filed a motion to intervene in a dispute taking place in Pennsylvania between a lesbian and her deceased partner’s parents.

When Sarah Ellyn Farley died of cancer, her partner, Jennifer Tobits, said she was entitled to the death benefits provided by Farley’s employer because they were “married” in Canada in 2006. Farley’s parents, whom she designated as beneficiaries, disagreed. In court, Tobits challenged the constitutionality of both the federal DOMA and Pennsylvania’s state-level marriage-defense law, triggering the government’s response.

“I think what is happening here is the issue is coming to a head for the American people,” said Peter Breen, executive director of the Thomas More Society, which is arguing the case on behalf of Farley’s parents. “Marriage is a privileged relationship. Our hope is that this case will clearly show that. Here we have actual human beings who will be hurt if DOMA is struck down. There will be great legal problems, great confusion in terms of something as important as people’s retirement plans if DOMA is allowed to be struck down.”

Breen said the more attention disputes over DOMA get in the media, the better it will be for voters.

“Really, we’re bringing the key issues to bear so the American people can see the impact of homosexual marriage and civil unions,” he said. “The Catholic Charities of Illinois were supposedly protected, too, but the state decided to run them out of business. You can’t change marriage without harming a lot of people. Up til now we really haven’t seen the harms, but now we are. So it’s a positive to debate this now. The problem happens when they slide these things through in the dead of night with no attention paid to them.”

Oral arguments on the case will be held in March in Philadelphia.

Ask your senators to take a stand against S. 598, regardless of whether it is added as an amendment to another bill or stands alone.

Read S. 598.

Read the Farleys’ original lawsuit.

Read the BLAG motion to intervene.

Learn more about the Thomas More Society.