Elder gay statesman Barney Frank won’t sign on, says bill has ‘zero chance’ of passage
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bill seeking to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act was introduced Tuesday, Sept. 15 in the U.S. House of Representatives. But this "top priority" for the LGBT community is likely already relegated to a legislative obscurity and inaction for this session and, perhaps, beyond.
The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a longtime supporter of equal rights for gays, has essentially no chance for a hearing or vote during this session of Congress, according to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who chose not to sponsor the legislation.
It is the last of eight bills of specific interest to the LGBT community to be introduced to this session of Congress, which is nearing the end of the first of its two years. And Frank, the de facto leader on LGBT-related measures in Congress, says four other bills come first.
"We have pending four major pieces of [LGBT] legislation which have a serious chance to pass," said Frank in a telephone interview Monday, Sept. 14, the day before Nadler’s bill was officially introduced.
Those four bills, Frank noted, are the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill, attached to a bill authorizing defense spending; the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA); a bill to give equal benefits to the partners of gay federal employees as provided to straight spouses; and a bill to repeal the military’s anti-gay "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.
The Nadler bill, said Frank, "has zero chance of passage, even out of committee. It’s a mistake."
Frank’s problem with the bill isn’t just its timing on a crowded and unusually urgent Congressional calendar monopolized by health care reform, financial regulation reform, appropriations bills and the other LGBT legislation.
"It’s a very controversial form" of the bill, he said.
Nadler’s bill, the "Respect for Marriage Act," (ROMA) is a simple two-page measure, seeking to do two things:
• Repeal both parts of DOMA — Section 2, which says no state can be "required" to recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple licensed in another state, and Section 3, which limits the interpretation of "marriage" for any federal purpose to only heterosexual couples;
• And to add language that says "for the purposes of any federal law in which marital status is a factor, an individual shall be considered married if that individual’s marriage is valid in the state where the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside any state, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and the marriage could have been entered into in a state."
Frank says the latter clause abandons the strategy of "dealing with marriage state by state." If a same-sex couple obtains a marriage license in Massachusetts and moves to California, the federal government would recognize their marriage in California.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national Freedom to Marry organization, helped write that latter provision, which has been dubbed the "certainty clause."
"It’s called the ‘certainty clause,’" said Wolfson, in a phone interview after the press conference, "because it establishes certainty that your federal protections and responsibilities will remain with you no matter where you travel" as a same-sex married couple.
"The federal government will have a consistent approach. And it’s not telling states what to do," says Wolfson.
Frank concedes that it’s "a desirable goal," but says, "We’re not remotely close to achieving it and it’s unwise politically."
For that reason, said Frank, he’s not one of the bill’s current 90 co-sponsors. But doesn’t Frank’s refusal to co-sponsor the bill, even as a starting point for discussion, essentially kill the bill before it’s out of the chute?
"It does send a message that it’s a bad idea," says Frank. "But I want to send a message."
Top priority for community
While the Nadler bill doesn’t have Frank’s support, it does have the co-sponsorship of two of Congress’ other openly gay members — Reps. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Jared Polis, D-Colo.
Joining Nadler and others at Tuesday’s press conference were some of the movement’s biggest leaders: Wolfson, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Executive Director Kevin Cathcart and National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director Shannon Minter.
HRC’s Web site says its communications with the LGBT community around the country indicate repealing DOMA is "a top priority." Some 50,000 people responded to the organization’s request for examples of how DOMA affects them negatively.
"We’re in this for the long haul," said Solmonese, in a phone interview following Tuesday’s press conference. "This is a long-term strategy."
He seems untroubled by Frank’s withholding of support.
"We have a difference of opinion about tactics," said Solmonese.
Perhaps, but Frank likens Nadler’s bill to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision, in February 2004, to direct city officials to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples even though a state law prohibited it.
"It’s an effort to make people in the community happy," said Frank. "That’s not our job. We owe people our judgment."
Some political observers have blamed Newsom’s tactic as off-putting and responsible for at least some of the vote to approve Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California, last November.
Frank says he thinks "the way we’ll win" repeal of DOMA is through the lawsuit filed by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders against Section 3 of the law.
GLAD, the Massachusetts-based legal organization that has been leading the charge for same-sex marriage rights and against DOMA, was noticeably absent at the press conference to announce ROMA.
But Carisa Cunningham, a spokesperson for GLAD, said the organization supports the bill.
"We just didn’t have anyone who could make it to Washington today," said Cunningham.
And Nadler defends ROMA: "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."
Nadler says his bill "does not tell any state who it must marry or what marriage it must recognize under state law."
"Our bill," says Nadler, "allows states to continue deciding those questions, while ensuring uniform access to critically important federal responsibilities and rights that hinge on marriage and upon which all married couples should be able to rely."
Â© 2009 Keen News Service
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 18, 2009.