John Kerry cosponsors proposed repeal of Defense of Marriage Act

By Sam Butterfield


A prominent lawmaker from Massachusetts, the first state to permit gay marriages, has introduced legislation aiming to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 statute which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

In a Wednesday message, Whitney Smith, a spokesperson for John Kerry, the fifth-term Senator from Massachusetts, said Kerry had cosponsored legislation that would “restore the rights of all lawfully married couples, including same-sex couples, to receive the benefits of marriage under federal law.”

Same-sex couples, even those recognized as legally married in their home states, are presently denied numerous federal marriage benefits, including social security protections.

The law both stipulates that states not recognizing the validity of same-sex unions are not required to recognize the legitimacy of couples married officially elsewhere and states that “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” According to Kerry’s statement, the senior senator was the only member of the senate running for reelection to vote against the bill.

In the statement, Kerry said he has believed DOMA to be unconstitutional since its inception, and that he will continue to work to see it repealed.

“DOMA was wrong and unconstitutional when I voted against it 15 years ago,” he said, “and it’s equally wrong and unconstitutional today.”

Kerry said he believes the bill hurts citizens and deprives some of basic rights.

“This discriminatory law treats loving, committed same-sex couples like second-class citizens by denying them thousands of federal benefits,” he said. “It’s overdue for Congress to ease the pain that Congress caused in the first place.”

The senator also said he believes the nation has shifted in its stance on same-sex marriage since the bill first passed.

“America has undergone a transformation on these issues since 1996, and the law should reflect the reality of where we are now as a country.”

Kerry and several of his colleagues in the Senate have proposed an alternate bill, the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), which would do away with DOMA and would provide marriage benefits to same-sex couples, though it would not require states to recognize same-sex marriages. RFMA would provide same-sex couples such benefits as Social Security survivors’ and spousal coverage, the right to care for spouses under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the ability to file joint tax returns, and full family benefits for federal civilian employees.

RFMA was introduced in the House by New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler in September 2009, and has made its way to the Senate, where it was introduced by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and is cosponsored by 18 other senators, including Kerry. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is presently dominated by Democrats, including Chair Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Feinstein, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and former comedian turned lawmaker Al Franken of Minnesota.

Although the Republican-controlled House of Representatives may attempt to block the bill from going through, public opinion on homosexuality and gay marriage does seem to have changed since DOMA passed. An October Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage, while 48 percent oppose. The year before, just 37 percent favored while 54 percent opposed, marking the first time since the topic has been tracked that fewer than half the nation opposed same-sex marriage.

Last month, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement announcing that they would direct the Justice Department to no longer defend challenges to the bill, specifically its third section, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, calling it unconstitutional. Although the duo formally announced their opposition to the statute, it remains on the books, and while the administration will no longer defend the constitutionality of the law, Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican of Ohio, has announced his intentions to defend the third section, stating that courts, not politicians, should decide the bill’s constitutionality.

On March 9, he announced that “after consultation with the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, the House General Counsel has been directed to initiate a legal defense of this law. This action will ensure that this law’s constitutionality is decided by the courts, rather than by the President unilaterally.”

The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group is a five-member board composed of the Speaker of the House (Boehner), the House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy of California, the Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi of California and the Minority whip, Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland. The group directs the House General Counsel to take certain stances on representing Congress’ interests in legal matters. 

Sam Butterfield can be reached at [email protected]