Senate Committee Votes to Repeal DOMA

Back in 1996, when the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed Congress by an overwhelming majority, they had the feelings of the country behind them. A 1996 Gallup poll showed that 68 percent of Americans rejected marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Fifteen years later the picture looks quite different.

Last week, a Senate committee approved a bill that would repeal DOMA. The 10-8 vote on the Respect for Marriage Act in the Judiciary Committee was along party lines, but proves, according to sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein, that Democrats are willing to vote against DOMA even in the midst of pending elections.

The bill certainly has an uphill climb in both the Senate and the House, if it even gets introduced in this session. That fact caused Republicans—who spent their time recently passing a measure to re-affirm “In God We Trust …” as the national motto—to accuse Democrats of wasting time.

But, the fact that the measure could get out of committee is a big step for the eventual repeal of DOMA. The latest polls show that a slim majority, 53 percent, of the population now favors marriage equality for gays and lesbians. The political reality is that is often takes time for the people’s will to ever see the light of day in Congress, so DOMA may remain the law of the land for the foreseeable future, but this vote gives it momentum in the right direction.

Reaction from the religious right was predictable, of course. Over at Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink, bloggers opined about “actual human beings who will be hurt if DOMA is struck down.” Those actual human beings (since gays and lesbians apparently aren’t) are the children. “Think of the children!” is, of course, the right wing’s favorite battle cry.

They take the passage of the measure out of committee as an opportunity to talk about the “harm” being done because Catholic charities may have to stop adoption services rather than consider same-sex couples.

“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,” CitizenLink quotes Peter Breen from the Thomas More Society.

It’s certainly true that Catholic Charities can’t do business with the state anymore after civil unions were passed but they were hardly “run out” of business. The rules of doing business with the state changed, and it was Catholic Charities that chose to not play by those rules. If Catholic Charities really cared about the children they would find a way to work with the state instead of taking their services and depriving children of good homes—whether they were gay or straight parents. If religious organizations choose their dogmas over serving children, then it is that organization that is inflicting harm—not those who are working for marriage equality.

The real harm is to gay and lesbian couples, many who are raising children together, who are denied the rights and benefits that come with marriage like medical leave and Social Security. One organization, however, is arguing that focusing on “rights” doesn’t do much to put that “actual human” face on the marriage debate. The moderate think tank Third Way is advising in a new report, instead, that gay and lesbian people begin to focus on telling their stories—and how the denial of marriage rights hurts their families in very real and tangible ways to make the point that “actual human beings,” including the children, are being hurt by DOMA and its consequences.

That focus on “commitment” over “rights” may well be what’s needed to completely turn the tide so the stories of “actual human beings” can be told in a clear manner. No argument will sway the hardened positions on the religious right, but when enough people in that “moveable middle” begin to see the harm being done to same-sex couples because of DOMA then perhaps the vote to repeal it will one day be as much of a no-brainer as passing it was.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)