Basic protection for families should not end at state border
A recent federal ruling struck down a part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Guest columnists Charlene Strong and Hans Johnson note the victory but say basic protection for families of gay and lesbian people should not end at the state border.
Special to The Times
EARLIER this month, a federal judge ruled that part of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, is unconstitutional.
The ruling may spell the beginning of the end for the 1996 statute, a cornerstone of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. But demise of the law may be achingly slow unless the U.S. House and Senate repeal it in full.
State legislators also need to follow the lead of Washington state by providing recognition for same-sex couples in state law. Equal access to civil marriage is the reality in five states and the District of Columbia, and thousands of families have gained recognition there. Still, DOMA mocks those relationships and removes that protection at the state lines.
DOMA singles out same-sex couples by denying our marriages the Constitution's guarantee of full faith and credit extended to other jurisdictions' contracts. Imagine if your driver's license weren't valid in Idaho. That's the essence of DOMA.
District Court Judge Joseph Tauro, an appointee of President Nixon based in Boston, struck down the portion of the law that limits which marriages the federal government respects. It would allow federal recognition of marriages of same-sex couples in at least one state, Massachusetts, where marriage equality is reality.
Last year, Washington state enacted comprehensive domestic-partnership laws protecting same-sex couples who register. Thanks to a large coalition supporting the law and a statewide vote to preserve it, this important statute remains in force and now covers more than 7,000 same-sex couples.
Still, Washington and Massachusetts are the exception, not the rule. As families embark on domestic travel this summer, they should know that many states fail the test of honoring diversity and safeguarding their own citizens and visitors.
In Hawaii, Gov. Linda Lingle this month blocked a widely favored law to extend many rights and responsibilities of state law to committed same-sex couples. Her veto stopped a bill creating civil unions. In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court upheld a constitutional amendment that conservatives placed on the 2006 state ballot to deprive same-sex couples of state legal recognition.
Thirty states have similar constitutional amendments denying eligibility for marriage to same-sex couples and relegating them to second-class status or worse. Besides the six jurisdictions with marriage equality, a few other states, such as New York and Maryland, have worked around DOMA by honoring same-sex marriages made elsewhere.
Still, as long as DOMA remains on the books, it effectively severs all such recognition at the state line. This situation is as intolerable for same-sex couples as it would be for straight couples, who enjoy more than 1,000 rights under federal law.
Four years ago, Charlene felt the cost of such legal disregard when she lost her wife of 10 years. Deemed not next of kin, she was barred from the hospital room where her partner lay dying and was later deliberately ignored by a funeral director who was nonetheless content to accept her payment.
Charlene's story happened in Washington state, but it is not just a Washington story. It's an American story. DOMA, by denying equal protection of the law to same-sex couples and the thousands who care about us and our families, is an un-American law.
A court has struck down part of it. Federal lawmakers need to repeal all of it. DOMA is a barrier for basic recognition of families like ours and a sad excuse for the inequality — in state law and daily life — that we and our allies are fighting to overcome.Charlene Strong, left, is a human-rights commissioner in Washington state; she speaks here only on her own behalf. Hans Johnson is president of Progressive Victory and a columnist at Huffington Post.