Frank Will Not Support DOMA Repeal

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 14, 2009

A Congressman from New York plans to sponsor a bill to undo one of the most damaging federal laws to gay and lesbian families, the 1996 "Defense of Marriage" Act, which legally consigns same-sex couples to strangers status even if they are married in one of the six states where full marriage equality is legal.

DOMA was passed as the first state to contemplate marriage equality, Hawaii, was making headlines in 1996, and spurring a panic that if marriage equality were to become legal in any one of the 50 states, the rest would be compelled to honor such marriages granted there under the U.S. Constitution's "full faith and credit" clause.

But the measure also denies gay and lesbian families any recognition from the federal government, declaring that only heterosexual couples will be recognized as being married by federal law.

That means that married gays and lesbians do not have access to a plethora of rights at the federal level--taxes, inheritance, pensions--even if they are otherwise married at the state level.

The only way to reverse this is to repeal DOMA, which is what New York Congressman Jerry Nadler intends to do, according to a Sept. 11 article at the Washington Blade.

Two of the three openly gay members of the House of Representatives, Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis, are on board with Nadler, but a surprising omission in support for the measure of Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who says that there are too many other pieces of legislation to try and get passed.

The Blade quoted Frank as saying, "It's not anything that's achievable in the near term."

Added Frank, "I think getting ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], a repeal of [the military ban on openly gay troops] 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and full domestic partner benefits for federal employees will take up all of what we can do and maybe more in this Congress."

Frank identified one of the bill's aims, which would be to allow gay and lesbian families to be equally protected as they travel across state lines. The current patchwork of laws can see families' rights fluctuate from full marriage to virtually no legal protections as they motor cross-country, say, on a family vacation. That makes trips to other states particularly worrisome and problematic for same-sex marrieds, and especially for gay and lesbian parents, who might have cause to worry that if the kids get hurt or take ill, they might have few or no legal rights to see them in the hospital or make medical decisions.

But that provision could rouse political Sturm und Drang, Frank noted, by suggesting that marriage rights could be "exported" from family-friendly states to other, less equality-minded, states.

The Blade quoted Nadler as scoffing at Frank's reservations, saying, "Mr. Frank knows better than anyone that our opponents will falsely claim that any DOMA repeal bill 'exports marriage' in an effort to generate fear and misunderstanding.

"But the dishonest tactics of our opponents should not stop us from aggressively pushing to end this horrific discrimination now, as is the consensus of the nation's top LGBT groups who all support this approach."

Still, the Blade reported, Congressman Frank viewed progress on the issue as more likely to come from the courts--specifically, a lawsuit against DOMA brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

Frank called the suit "very thoughtful, very well done," and predicted, "That's the way we'll win this."

GLBT equality advocates see no reason not to pursue both options. Crain's New York quoted the president of the Lambda independent Democrats, Mary Cooley, in a Sept. 11 article: said Cooley, "We're obviously strongly supportive of the bill, and we're very grateful that Congressman Nadler has introduced it."

The article also quoted Marriage Equality New York's executive director, Ron Zacchi, who disagreed with Frank's assessment of the bill's chances, saying, "To have Congress repeal DOMA, I think, is very viable."

Zacchi pointed to comments like that of former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay. Cheney had expressed support for gay and lesbian families, and for letting states decide the issue themselves.

Noted Zacci, "Both political parties have said that government on the federal level shouldn't be involved in marriage, and the Defense of Marriage Act is taking a stance on marriage [on the part of the federal government].

"Letting states decide for themselves is something both parties have said they support," added Zacci.

Politico reported in a Sept. 14 article that Nadler will introduce the bill on Sept. 15.

Even if Frank is proven wrong and the bill passes the House, if could face the same hurdle that other gay-friendly federal laws to clear Congress have faced: the Senate. Politico noted that there are doubts the Senate would send the measure to President Obama's desk.

Obama is another question mark. As a candidate, Obama spoke out against DOMA. He also spoke out against the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops in uniform, only to do little to banish "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" once in the White House. Overall, GLBT equality groups have grown impatient with the president's lack of action on gay issues.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.