As Senator Leahy called the hearing to order at 9:45 yesterday morning there was a general feeling of excitement and expectation in the room—the first ever Senate hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act (which would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act) was beginning. The crowd was a mix of opponents of DOMA and those individuals who have suffered firsthand because of its biased and unconstitutional restrictions. For too long one religious group’s principles have been codified into civil law in the form of DOMA thereby making the religious convictions of some, legal restrictions for all. The testimony was inspirational and the fact that the hearing even occurred is encouraging to those of us who believe in religious liberty and marriage equality

DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman for all federal purposes. This means that, even if same-gender marriage is legal in your state, the federal government does not recognize it. This issue manifests itself all the time. One example is when a person is unable to receive social security benefits from their deceased husband or wife just because they have the same gender. It also makes it very difficult for gay and lesbian couples to file joint tax returns and forces them to pay taxes on healthcare coverage as earned income if their employer allows them to put their spouse on their employer-based healthcare plan. These are just a few of the more than 1,000 responsibilities and privileges afforded opposite-gender couples but not same-gender couples even if they are married.

The inherent injustice of a “second-class marriage,” as Evan Wolfson labeled it, is not the only upsetting part of the situation. The even more distressing aspect is that these restrictions exist almost exclusively because of religious principles, something that should never happen in America where we should cherish our religious diversity and freedom. Witnesses in favor of DOMA spoke about “biblical marriage” to defend their position. Ignoring the obvious problem that polygamy and wife-ownership were “biblical” understandings of marriage; the deeper issue is that religious perceptions of this civil institution are preventing taxpayers from receiving equal treatment and that not all religious perceptions are the same. Although marriage is religious for many people, the marriage that government handles is secular and legal. A repeal of DOMA in the form of the Respect for Marriage Act would in no way affect religious institutions or practices; all it would do is correct the problems with the secular, civil marriage that government controls. Government cannot and should not interfere with the religious aspects of marriage just as religious marriage values should not exclude legally married couples.

Speaking to this issue, Interfaith Alliance president and State of Belief host Rev. Welton Gaddy wrote in his testimony submitted to the committee:

Our elected representatives have a sworn obligation to make decisions guided by the U.S. Constitution, not the sectarian morality derived from a singular religious tradition.  To them is entrusted responsibility for providing for the public welfare of all individuals.  When it comes to the question of same-gender marriage, the goal should not be to demand that people change their theology.  A far better goal is to ask people not to attempt to impose their theology on those who hold a different theological point of view.  Marriage should be a right that is available to every citizen, but never an act, ritual, or formal ceremony that any house of worship, denomination, or religious leader should be required to legally perform in contradiction to his or her beliefs.  

I was happy to be in the room for the first ever hearing about repealing DOMA. President Obama’s recent support of repealing DOMA, the legalization of same-gender marriage in New York, recent polls that show a majority of Americans support gay marriage all show progress and the inevitable achievement of equality. It is also encouraging to see the growing numbers of cosponsors for the Respect for Marriage Act in the House and the Senate—I hope you’ll take a moment today to ask your representatives in Congress to cosponsor the bill  so its support can continue to grow. I look forward to a time when DOMA will no longer be an embarrassing reminder of religious beliefs being turned into restrictive law.

Click here for a fascinating interview with Louis J. Marinelli, a former strategist with the National Organization for Marriage whose personal interactions with LGBT community swayed him to change his mind on the issue. (Please note, this is an extended version of the interview originally broadcast nationwide.)

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