Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee marked the first time any Senate or House committee ever held a hearing on overturning the 1996 law, which defines marriage for federal purposes as between a man and a woman and gives states the option of not recognizing another state's gay "marriages." Gay groups view its reversal as the first step toward redefining marriage in all 50 states.
The Respect for Marriage Act (S. 598), endorsed by President Obama, would overturn the 15-year-old-law, often called "DOMA." It has very little chance of passing in the current Congress.
"I think what we have is a situation where a lot of folks simply don't understand what marriage is," Edward Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told senators.
Whelan, who supports the '96 law, said marriage logically is tied to procreation and childrearing, which can only lead to a traditional definition. Austin R. Nimmocks, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, made a similar argument. Nimmocks' group also supports DOMA.
"Entrance to marry has never been conditioned upon a couple's actual ability and desire to find happiness together, their level of financial entanglement or their actual personal dedication to each other," Nimmocks said, refuting common arguments for redefining marriage. "Rather, marriage laws stem from the fact that children are the product of the sexual relationships between men and woman, and that both fathers and mothers are viewed to be necessary for children."
The government has an interest in defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Nimmocks said, because it has an interest in the future generation and it recognizes the unique and complementary differences of mothers and fathers. He quoted the 1996 Senate Judiciary Committee report which argued that society has a "deep and abiding interest in encouraging responsible procreation and child-rearing."
"While some may argue that times have changed, they cannot credibly argue that humanity, as a gendered species, has changed," Nimmocks said. "Men and women still compose the two great halves of humanity, men and women are uniquely different, and men and women still play important and irreplaceable roles in the family."
Opponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, though, argued that the law has prevented same-sex couples from receiving the federal legal benefits of marriage. The federal government does not recognize the "marriages" from the five states -- soon to be six -- where gay "marriage" is legal. Several gay individuals testified before the Senate committee.
"Those who are lucky enough to live in states that do permit them to marry, they still face a federal government that treats their marriages as if they do not exist," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest homosexual organization. "So on behalf of the tens of thousands of married same-sex couples in this country -- including myself and my husband -- I urge Congress to pass the Respect for Marriage Act and to end the federal government's disrespect for and discrimination against lawfully married same-sex couples."
The Defense of Marriage Act, Solmonese said, "remains in the way of true equality."
"DOMA means that the many protections the federal government provides for the health and security of American families remains out of reach for same-sex couples and their children," Solmonese said.
The hearing provided very little back-and-forth between the two sides: For the most part, senators directed their questions at the panelists they knew sided with them. When panelist Andrew Sorbo -- a gay man from Connecticut -- argued that those who opposed gay "marriage" were the "philosophical descendents of those who defended slavery," no senator challenged him.
The hearing also saw the two sides highlight different sections of the Defense of Marriage Act. Opponents of DOMA said it should be overturned so that same-sex couples could receive federal benefits, while supporters of DOMA said the law is needed to protect states' rights.
"I do support the rights of states to make changes in marriage if they choose," Sen. Charles Grassley, R.-Iowa, said, "but I also believe that a state that changes its definition of marriage should not be able to impose that change on sister states or the federal government."
Rep. Steve King, R.-Iowa, said redefining marriage would have unseen consequences. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized "gay marriage" in 2009.
"The other side argues that you can't choose who you love and that a union between two men or two women is equal to that of one man and one woman," King said. "But these are the same arguments that could be used to promote marriage between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, or even polygamist relationships."
Whelan agreed, and said the Respect for Marriage Act, as written, would force the federal government to recognize polygamous relationships in a state where they were legalized
"Under the bill, any polyamorous union recognized as a marriage under state law would have to be recognized by the federal government as a marriage for purposes of federal law," Whelan said, using the term for group relationships. "Thus, the foreseeable effect of the bill would be to have the federal government validate any state's adoption of polyamory and to require taxpayers throughout the country to subsidize polygamous and other polyamorous unions.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D.-Conn. argued it is wrong for the federal government not to respect Connecticut's law recognizing gay "marriage."
"States do have the prerogative to establish the rules that surround marriage," Blumenthal said. " ... For the federal government to discriminate against some marriages in the way that it does is also a disrespect for Connecticut's law."
Thomas Minnery, senior vice president for public policy for Focus on the Family, warned that the legalization of gay "marriage" would lead to it being taught as normative in public schools.
"We need look no further than Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage," he said, citing an example of a first-grade class being read a book about a gay relationship and an eighth-grade class being taught about gay sex. The eighth-grade example was taken from a National Public Radio story.
Nimmocks, the Alliance Defense Fund attorney, said opponents of DOMA are wanting people to "ignore the unique and demonstrable differences between men and women in parenthood."
"Because of the fundamental truth that children are the product of sexual relationships between men and women," he said, "and that men and women each bring something important to the table of parenting, this government maintains a compelling interest in protecting and preserving the institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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