Efforts to undo the Defense of Marriage Act in Congress received a major boost Friday as Rep. Richard Hanna of New York declared his support for legislation to repeal the 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples. The move makes him only the second Republican lawmaker to back the measure.
Hanna, a first-term incumbent from upstate New York, announced his co-sponsorship of the Respect for Marriage Act in a statement provided to The Advocate.
“New York State allows all its citizens the freedom to marry the person they love,” he said. “Under the Tenth Amendment, the federal government has a Constitutional responsibility to respect New York’s right to set its own laws. It’s my job to see that it does.
“It is right to extend equal protection under federal law to all couples who are legally married without infringing upon religious freedom and beliefs,” Hanna continued. “This legislation does not tell states who can be married or who must be treated as married, nor does it require any religious institution to violate their own convictions.
“I respect the deeply held beliefs on both sides of this issue,” he said. “The simple fact remains that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure all legally married couples are treated equally under federal law – and this bill would achieve that proper standard.”
His announcement continues the sea change taking place around the measure that passed both houses of Congress by large majorities 16 years ago and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Hanna joins Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the first Republican lawmaker to back DOMA repeal. Fifteen months have elapsed since her trailblazing statement, but advocates hope more endorsements will come more quickly now as the GOP grapples with a rapidly changing cultural and political landscape thrown into sharp relief by the recent election.
“The message that’s being sent is, ‘This is where the party should be. This is where we should be. This is where the country is moving,’” said Jo Deutsch, federal director for Freedom to Marry. “What we’re really seeing now is strong and public support by both Democrats and Republicans to repeal DOMA,” she said.
For the past year and a half, Deutsch, a liberal Democrat, has worked in a concerted bipartisan effort with Republican lobbyist Kathryn Lehman, who helped write DOMA as chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. The two have been joined by Log Cabin Republicans executive director R. Clarke Cooper and Torrey Shearer, a colleague of Lehman’s at the Holland & Knight firm, in meetings with more than 30 elected officials and candidates to make the conservative case for DOMA repeal.
“Marriage has always been left to the states, so it was the one time we jumped in to make marriage a federal issue, and I think it was in retrospect done unwisely,” said Lehman of DOMA’s creation.
The all-gay team of operatives first approached Hanna last year. His clear positions, including support for the Employment Non-discrimination Act and four votes against amendments to affirm DOMA, among other stances, made him an early and prime prospect. In addition, he hails from New York, where a Republican-led state legislative chamber passed marriage equality for the first time last year, and where Windsor v. United States, the DOMA challenge to be heard by the Supreme Court in the coming months, originated.
"Congressman Hanna's co-sponsorship of DOMA repeal sends a positive message to fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives that the federal government has no business disrespecting decisions by states to protect gay and lesbian families,” said Log Cabin’s Cooper in a statement. “During his freshman term, Richard Hanna was seen as a solid team player, but also an independent-minded representative of his district who was willing to stand on his own.”
Hanna was reelected last month in a new district by an overwhelming margin. He received the backing of American Unity PAC, a super PAC launched by hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer to support pro-equality Republicans in federal races. The PAC endorsed eight candidates, and the only two who won their contests, Ros-Lehtinen and Hanna, now hold the most outspoken positions on DOMA repeal.
“Hanna's public support for the Respect for Marriage Act will embolden fellow conservatives who value the Constitution's design for limited government and respect for individual liberty,” Cooper added. “Many in our party are finally recognizing that we have to deal with the reality of committed same-sex partnerships, and that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure all legally married couples are treated equally under federal law. Repealing DOMA is a crucial step in the right direction, and Richard Hanna, as a champion of true conservative principles, is helping to lead the way."
The development coincides with a vigorous conversation within the Republican Party as it reckons with the results of the November election, including the historic votes for marriage equality in four state referendums. Perhaps no issue is more emblematic of the questions facing the party as it seeks to modernize and broaden its appeal, where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich this week acknowledged the “reality” of marriage equality.
While polls show increasing majorities of Americans including independents and young conservatives support the freedom to marry, the growing number of states allowing same-sex marriage means that more lawmakers know couples negatively affected by DOMA, such as through denial of Social Security survivor benefits, immigration rights, and many more. Combined with repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, where gay and lesbian military members can now serve openly while their families still face discrimination, the compelling arguments for ending DOMA continue to mount.
“The more support there is and the more support there is on the electoral front as shown through the referenda, I think the more people realize the handwriting’s on the wall,” said Lehman. “I think in the near future, God willing, this is just not going to be an issue anymore.”
The current session of Congress ends in less than two weeks, which means the Respect for Marriage Act will need to be reintroduced next session. Currently, the bill has 159 co-sponsors plus the original sponsor, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who first introduced the legislation in 2009. President Obama endorsed the measure last year.
"I am thrilled to have my colleague from New York, Congressman Richard Hanna, on board as the second Republican cosponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, and the 159th cosponsor overall," said Rep. Nadler in a statement. "So far, 160 representatives of both parties have weighed in to say that the Defense of Marriage Act – DOMA – is discriminatory, counterproductive, and needs to be repealed. We continue to build a broad coalition to defeat DOMA in Congress and across the nation. Meanwhile, we are actively involved in the challenge to DOMA in the Windsor case soon to be considered by the Supreme Court, where we will continue to argue for equal protection for all Americans," he said.
The Human Rights Campaign also responded to the annoucement. HRC endorsed Hanna in his bid for re-election this year.
“We’re thrilled to have Rep. Hanna join the growing list of Republicans who oppose the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act," said legislative director Allison Herwitt. "The American people strongly support DOMA repeal, and we will continue to work with members of both parties to end this discrimination once and for all.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee controlled by Democrats advanced the legislation last year, but the Respect for Marriage Act has yet to receive a hearing in the Republican-controlled House. Republican leadership there has spent at least $2 million to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court since the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the statute last year.
As DOMA repeal advocates look to the near future, they anticipate the process of reintroduction will create opportunities for conversations that encourage more co-sponsors of both parties to come on board in both houses. The new support from Hanna, together with the dynamic climate around LGBT equality and the Republican Party, makes a House committee hearing, the next benchmark in the effort, a reasonable goal in the next session of Congress.
“We are hopeful that we will have more co-sponsors on the bill for original introduction than we have right now,” said Deutsch. “We’re hoping that’s more Democrats and more Republicans.”