Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Legislators seek repeal of federal marriage law

Legislators seek repeal of federal marriage law

(09-16) 04:00 PDT Washington - -- Impatient with the piecemeal approach to gay rights adopted by Democratic leaders, 90 House liberals, including Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee, introduced a bill Tuesday to repeal the central federal law governing same-sex couples.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act denies federal marriage benefits to such couples, including Social Security, estate and other tax laws and spousal immigration rights.

Leading the effort is Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who said that when the law was signed by former President Bill Clinton 13 years ago, same-sex marriage was hypothetical, but today tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples are legally married under the laws of four states.

The repeal, called the Respect for Marriage Act, would affect 18,000 same-sex couples married in California last year before voters approved Proposition 8, which overrode a state Supreme Court decision granting them marriage rights.

"Discrimination against committed couples and stable families is terrible federal policy," Nadler said.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont now marry same-sex couples, and New Hampshire will begin doing so in January. Voters in Maine will decide in November whether to allow same-sex marriage there.

The Respect for Marriage Act would allow all legally married same-sex couples access to what advocates say are more than 1,000 marital benefits under federal law.

The law was passed during an election year when Clinton and many Democrats in Congress feared a voter backlash. Clinton issued a statement Tuesday saying, "the fabric of our country has changed, and so should this policy."

President Obama has said he would sign a law repealing the act, but many activists have been disappointed that he has not moved to revoke the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays in the military, allowing gays and lesbians to be dismissed on his watch.

Notably absent from the repeal bill's sponsors is Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay member of Congress who usually takes the lead on gay rights legislation. Frank and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco prefer a more incremental approach that they believe has a better chance of enactment, including a hate crimes bill that passed the House in April and a bill to prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The repeal would not impose same-sex marriage on any state. But it would allow couples living in states that do not recognize their marriages access to federal benefits. Nadler said repeal would simply return jurisdiction over marriage law to the states where it has traditionally resided.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the speaker wants the law repealed but is "focused on legislative items that we can enact into law now."

In California, gay activists are split about whether to mount another ballot-box challenge to Prop. 8 in next year's elections for governor and Congress, or in 2012, the next presidential election.

Chronicle staff writer Joe Garofoli contributed to this report. E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at

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