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Of DOMA and Dodos

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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September 15, 2009

Earlier today, I attended a press conference hosted by Representative Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), at which he announced the formal introduction in Congress, with over 90 original co-sponsors no less, of the long-awaited “Respect for Marriage Act of 2009.” This much-anticipated legislation would fully repeal the mean-spirited and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies lawfully married gay and lesbian couples more than 1,100 federal rights and protections that are afforded to all opposite-sex married couples.

ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Chris Anders speaks at a press conference on the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act.

ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Chris Anders speaks at a press conference on the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act.

Just what are some of these protections you ask? Well, they include things like the ability to receive spousal survivor benefits under Social Security, taking unpaid leave to care for a sick or injured spouse, and being able to file taxes jointly, just to name a few.

In many respects, it is hard to imagine just how far we have come in the 13 years since DOMA was signed into law in 1996. Back then, gay and lesbian couples could not legally marry in any state. In fact, the concept of civil unions was considered pretty radical. By contrast, gay and lesbian couples today enjoy full marriage equality in six states from Maine to Iowa, with several others offering broad protections that fall short of marriage like civil unions and domestic partnerships. However, because of DOMA, even those couples who enjoy marriage equality at the state-level are denied every single one of the federal rights and protections that are given, almost as an afterthought, to opposite-sex married couples. Additionally, voters in Maine will soon decide a ballot measure that would strip away marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples in that state. I encourage everyone to check-out the website for “Vote No on 1/Protect Maine Equality” to find out more and learn how you can get involved.

Views on DOMA, even among one-time supporters like President Clinton and Members of Congress like former Representative and DOMA author Bob Barr, have changed over time and many now support its repeal. Additionally, President Obama has pledged his support for repealing DOMA.

As I listened to the morning press conference and speaker after speaker explain why repealing DOMA was so important, I could not quite shake another image from my mind — that of the long-extinct Dodo bird. As the Dodo has been extinct since the late 17th century, all we have left of it are colorful paintings, fossils in museums and the phrase “going the way of the Dodo.” Thanks to the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act, we are now just a little further along the path towards making DOMA go the way of the Dodo. And, unlike the harmless, fruit-eating, flightless Dodo, DOMA really has it coming!

Someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to look back and view DOMA as just an ugly relic of history and a reminder of the need to remain vigilant and ever-focused on the struggle for fundamental fairness and equality. With the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act, Congress has now taken the first step towards making that a reality.

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