DOMA excludes legally married same-sex couples from more than 1,100 federal responsibilities and protections, including tax fairness, access to health coverage, and recognition of family ties for immigration purposes. For gay and lesbian service members, DOMA also means they and their families are denied equal access to housing, military medical insurance, and survivors’ benefits – just to name a few. DOMA, enacted in 1996, creates a “gay exception” in marriage by departing from more than 200 years of tradition in which the federal government respected the lawful marriages that take place in the states, which issue marriage licenses. As long as it remains on the books, our service members will continue to face discrimination because their employer – the United States military – is barred from doing what is best for unit cohesion and morale, which is to treat all personnel and their families fairly and equally.
In a video released as part of our Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry campaign with OutServe-SLDN, Massachusetts Army National Guard Maj. Shannon McLaughlin, who has served for 13 years, and her wife, Casey, a former high school history teacher, speak firsthand about the burdens and pain DOMA inflicts. Although legally married in 2009, Shannon and Casey are legal strangers to one another in the eyes of the federal government; at best no more than roommates. In addition to the challenges any other military family faces, they are forced to juggle different health insurance policies. Casey, who does not have clearance to go on base, cannot take their 2-year-old twins, Grace and Grant, to regular medical appointments without Shannon.
Gay and lesbian service members like Shannon bravely and loyally serve our country, many of them risking their lives every day to ensure freedom at home. But at home, their families are not protected. When a gay or lesbian service member is injured or killed in action, his or her spouse is denied the support and coverage provided others who are married; often their spouses are not the first to be notified, because, under DOMA, they are not married, not family, not kin, not related – and cannot be recognized by our military.
Fifty-four percent of Americans nationwide now support same-sex couples’ freedom to marry; literally double the support we saw at the time the discriminatory “Defense of Marriage Act” was stampeded through Congress back in 1996, at a time when gay couples could not marry anywhere in the world. With our 4 for 4 ballot-measure wins last week – same-sex couples now share in the freedom to marry in nine states and the District of Columbia, with others on the horizon given our enormous post-election momentum.
Even as we work hard in the remaining states to end the discriminatory denial of marriage, it is time to get the federal government back on the side of families, its own employees, and those serving our country. There can no longer be two classes of service members in our armed forces. We need a uniform policy to ensure that the marriages of same-sex couples are treated with the same respect and dignity accorded every other legally married couple.
In May, a unanimous ruling by a Bush appointee in the First Circuit Court of Appeals struck down DOMA as unconstitutional – and less than a month ago, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against it again, marking the second appellate court ruling and the tenth consecutive ruling to strike down DOMA. These challenges, if affirmed or left standing by the Supreme Court, could end federal marriage discrimination – but courts don’t operate in a vacuum. A bill before Congress, the Respect for Marriage Act, would repeal DOMA and restore the federal government to its historic role of respecting marriages celebrated in the states. The Respect for Marriage Act enjoys broad support among a majority of Americans and is at a record level of cosponsors in Congress, with 32 cosponsors in the Senate and 157 cosponsors in the House of Representatives, including bipartisan support. With so much at stake, each of us can and must play a role in its passage -- and our moment is now. Find out what you can do in your state by clicking here, and check to see whether your members of Congress are cosponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act here; then email your lawmakers and become a part of the change.
As we remember our soldiers and their families amid this Veterans Day, let’s also remember the values we celebrate and they defend: liberty and justice for all. Let's join forces, take action, and make a real commitment to end discrimination in the military and in marriage, once and, yes, for all.
Wolfson is founder and President of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide, and author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry.