Democrats introduce federal LGBT rights bill in new Congressional session

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A bill to fully repeal what remains of the Defense of Marriage Act was introduced by Democratic lawmakers at the start of the new Congressional session.

At the time the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law, it not only banned the US government from granting same-sex couples any of the federal benefits provided by marriage, but also permitted individual states to refuse to legally recognize same-sex relationships. The Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2013 that it was discriminatory and thus unconstitutional, but because the lawsuit in question only challenged the first clause, the second remained in effect.

HR 197, also known as the Respect for Marriage Act, could potentially be this generation’s Loving v. Virginia. If passed, it would render the state-by-state fight for marriage equality effectively moot by amending United States Code to grant all legally married same-sex couples access to the federal benefits and protections of marriage, regardless of their state of residence.

According to the HRC, “To the extent that it is able, the administration has advanced a broad implementation of the Windsor decision, ensuring that lawfully-married same-sex couples are fully recognized wherever they may live in areas like immigration, federal employee and service member spousal benefits and federal taxation. However, there are a few areas, such as Social Security and veterans benefits, in which this issue remains unsettled and a resolution may require action by Congress.”

Attempts have been made to close the gaps that remain, but many have failed. For example, a House of Representatives committee rejected a bill aimed at ensuring that veterans’ same-sex spouses are entitled to benefits, regardless of their state of residence, in September 2014. Under current policy, the same-sex spouses of soldiers on active duty are entitled to receive benefits in all fifty states—but once that soldier retires, their spouse no longer qualifies for those same benefits if they live in a state that does not recognize their relationship.

The Respect for Marriage Act would change all of that, but under the current Republican-majority Congress it is unlikely to get very far. The Act has also been introduced in every Congressional session since 2009, but the furthest it has ever gotten was passage through the Senate Judiciary Committee in November 2011. Govtrack.us currently gives it a 2 percent chance of being enacted.

However, the timing of its reintroduction sends a clear message: that the Democratic Party considers LGBT rights one of its top priorities. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said in a press release, “Congress must repeal DOMA and ensure that all married, same-sex couples are treated equally under federal law, and that’s what this bill will do. Only when this bill is passed will we be able to guarantee the federal rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage for all loving couples. I call on my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this bill.”

Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who introduced the bill in the House of Representatives along with its only Republican supporter, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), was also quoted as saying, “We must finish the job begun by the Supreme Court by passing the Respect for Marriage Act. The Supreme Court has ruled that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, but Congress still must repeal the law in its entirety.

“The vast majority of Americans live in states where same-sex couples can marry and public support for marriage equality is growing stronger by the day. Repeal of DOMA is long overdue. That is why we are reintroducing the Respect for Marriage Act, which repeals DOMA in its entirety and sends DOMA into the history books where it belongs. The bill provides a uniform rule for recognizing couples under federal law, ensuring that lawfully married couples will be recognized under federal law no matter where they live and guaranteeing that all families can plan for a future of mutual obligation and support with confidence.”

429Magazine

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