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WASHINGTON -- The recognition of same-sex marriages performed under state law has become a controversial issue for Americans across the nation, including the right for couples in same-sex marriages to the same benefits typically associated with traditional marriage.
But on Wednesday, members of Congress debated a bill that would repeal the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. The hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act, which was introduced to Congress in March by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., involved several House and Senate Democrats, in addition to same-sex couples affected by the standing legislation, the Defense of Marriage Act.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, "I believe it is important that we encourage and sanction committed relationships."
In February, President Barack Obama asked the Department of Justice to stop defending DOMA because he deemed it as unconstitutional and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
The Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage for federal purposes as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."
I believe it is important that we encourage and sanction committed relationships.
However, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Ia., claimed the proposed legislation to repeal DOMA is misunderstood. He said, a respect for marriage bill would "restore marriage as it has been known: as between one man and one woman. This bill would undermine, not restore, marriage."
But proponents of the Respect for Marriage Act say the acting law denies same-sex couples of fundamental rights protected for only traditional marriages. Instead, Democrats contend, the bill is intended to make it so that married couples, despite sexual preference, are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits.
Ronald Wallen, 77, testified before the committee, describing his struggle with the Defense of Marriage Act and how it robbed him of Social Security benefits after his husband died last March. After spending 58 years together, and enjoying the benefits of marriage since 2008, Wallen urged congressional members, saying, "I beg you to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and allow all married couples the same protection."
Warren's husband, Tom Carrollo, was diagnosed with lymphoma, which later developed into leukemia before Carrollo eventually passed away.
"Tom's illness was four years of pure hell, with more hospitalizations than I can count using both hands and feet. I was up day and night trying to make things easier and more comfortable for him, and not a month went by that I was not rushing him to the emergency room," Wallen described. "But, like any other married couple facing troubles, we were in it together. Tom didn't have leukemia; we ha leukemia. And as rotten as those four years were, they were made ever so much easier because we had each other for comfort and love, and because we were married."
Wallen said he had to sell his house because he couldn't afford his mortgage and the expenses associated with Carrollo's medical costs. "I am spending my days and nights sorting through our possessions, packing boxes to move -- even while I am still answering the condolence cards that come in the mail."
Wallen added that the Social Security survivor benefits, which are granted to surviving spouses, would have eased the pain and allowed time to regroup. "It is devastating to know that any married couple in the U.S. regardless of how long they were married, can depend on the survivor's benefit. Yet, I could not -- after 58 years with my spouse -- simply because we were two married men. This is unfair and unjust," he said.
Despite Wallen's earnest plea to repeal DOMA, Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family, told Congress that DOMA should not be overturned because Americans have overwhelmingly rejected gay marriage.
"States have seen an abundance of popular votes and legislative activity in defense of one-man, one-woman marriage," Minnery said. "Since 1998, voters in 31 states have unapologetically endorsed the traditional definition of marriage in state ballot initiatives or referenda. … Forty-four states now have either constitutional amendments or statutes defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman."
Additionally, Republicans contend that the issue should be left up to the states to decide, not the federal government to force the views of a select few upon all states; states should not be coerced to accept the marriage of a same-sex couple performed in a state where gay marriage is legal.
To date, only six states recognize same-sex marriage, with New York as the most recent to pass legislation allowing gay couples to marry. A majority of the states in the nation have passed constitutional amendments to define marriage as between one man and one woman.