Equal Marriage: All I’m Asking is for a Little Respect

By Alyson Weiss, Field Intern

“Imagine, after 55 years together, the two of us were blubbering on our wedding day.” –Ron Wallen, California resident, describing his same-sex marriage before Proposition 8 illegalized it.

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the historic Senate Judiciary Hearing that discussed the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

It is probably not surprising that I, a NOW Intern, am a strong supporter of the Respect for Marriage Act. However, as Sen. Whitehouse (D-R.I.) astutely pointed out at the hearing, discussions surrounding LGBT rights often become “a clash between ideologies and personal stories.” Because I feel like this clash polarizes the two sides and makes communication between them impossible, I am going to attempt to bridge these two modes of argument.

Ideologies – This is where the debate between team “marriage as a human right” and team “marriage as a divine institution” usually flares. Having grown up Christian in the South, I completely understand the important role faith plays in moral development and as a foundation from which to make all decisions. Religious organizations should have jurisdiction over their own proceedings and should not be forced into performing marriages that contradict their doctrine.

Of course, the Respect for Marriage Act will do nothing to undermine this autonomy. As Rep. Chris Coons (D-Del.) pointed out, “My wedding ring and my marriage didn’t magically dissolve or disappear just because New York passed a same-sex marriage bill last month.” He also said that his faith does not give him “a monopoly on the interpretation of the will of God.”

We also have to consider our ideologies as people of the United States. Although there are many ways in which this country fails to live up to it, equality is one of the bedrocks of our culture and law. DOMA systematically denies benefits to same-sex couples that it grants to all heterosexual couples, even if that heterosexual couple met five minutes ago in Las Vegas.

As pointed out in testimony by Susan Murray, a Vermont lawyer who successfully argued for civil unions in her state, same-sex couples are discriminated against in a variety of ways. A few of these include being barred from filing join tax claims, having to pay taxes on joint health care (if same-sex spouses are covered at all), and being denied access to a deceased partner’s Social Security benefits and retirement funds.

This systematic discrimination affects even same-sex couples who live in states where marriage is legal, because many of these programs operate on the federal level. As people of a country that values equality, we cannot allow this discriminatory policy to stand.

Personal Stories – Repealing DOMA is about more than ideology. It’s about Wallen, quoted above, feeling so connected to his partner and his country that he cried on his wedding day. It’s about Andrew Sorbo, who lost 80 percent of his annual income when his partner of 30 years died of pancreatic cancer, and he discovered that his “legal Connecticut marriage license was paper thin in the eyes of the federal government.”

And, of course, it’s about the children. Many DOMA supporters use this argument, claiming that heterosexual marriages provide the best environment for children (although studies have refuted this). But these supporters rarely voice concern for the children of same-sex parents who are adversely affected by the previously-mentioned discriminatory policies.

Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), author of the Respect for Marriage Act, phrased it well at the hearing when he said, “No legitimate Congressional interest in the welfare of children is ever advanced by withholding protection from some children based on a desire to express moral disapproval of their parents.”

Repealing DOMA is about supporting the people in our lives that this discriminatory policy affects, and it is about upholding our ideology as people of the United States that all men (and women) are created equal and should enjoy the same rights. It is about creating a definition of marriage that is worth defending.

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