The Respect for Marriage Act
Freedom to Marry’s federal program – which set out to end federal marriage discrimination, one of the three tracks of the Roadmap to Victory – launched simultaneously with the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act in the 112th United States Congress. The landmark legislation aimed for repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and provided the federal program with a vital vehicle through which it could coordinate support on Capitol Hill and enlist powerful voices of elected officials to speak out for the freedom to marry.
Why the Respect for Marriage Act?
The Respect for Marriage Act called for repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, with its “gay exception” to the normal ways that the federal government treated lawful marriages. The bill aimed to provide clarity and security to families, businesses and others dealing with them, and the government itself. The bill did not tell states whom they must marry; whom they must treat as married; or how they must treat married couples, nor did it tell any religion what ceremonies to perform. It did not change the meaning of marriage. Since the First Amendment protects the right of churches and religious bodies to determine the qualifications for religious marriage, the Respect for Marriage Act, could not upset that longstanding protection. Rather, the Respect for Marriage Act set out to reverse the damage caused by the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which declared that even if a state established the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, the federal government was prohibited from granting respect to those marriages – or the 1,100+ protections and responsibilities marriage triggers at the federal level.
The Respect for Marriage Act aimed to turn the United States government from the No. 1 discriminator in marriage to being on the side of same-sex couples and the United States Constitution.
When Congress passed DOMA in 1996 and President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, it began an unprecedented intrusion into determining whose marriages deserve protection by the federal government, a job historically left to the states. In passing DOMA, Congress denied married same-sex couples the federal respect, protections, and responsibilities given to other married couples, excluding them from the 1,138 federal laws in which marital status was a factor. As a result, these couples were denied the essential safety-net that couples counted on and paid for with their tax dollars, including: sharing Social Security benefits with a spouse, filing joint Federal tax returns, sponsoring a spouse for a green card or citizenship, receiving the protections spouses are entitled to under the Federal estate tax, and access to family medical leave.
DOMA complicated marriage, creating a patchwork of confusion where married couples had to file state and local taxes differently and were uncertain of their rights and responsibilities, and burdening business and others interacting with the couples and their families. The Respect for Marriage Act aimed to turn the United States government from the No. 1 discriminator in marriage to being on the side of same-sex couples and the United States Constitution.
As the lead organization lobbying on Capitol Hill for the freedom to marry, Freedom to Marry coordinated building the cosponsors list and outreach of both Democrats and Republicans. Our lobbying efforts honed in on one track of the national Roadmap to Victory - repealing DOMA and ending federal marriage discrimination. Only after the end of federal marriage discrimination, the strategy explained, would the U.S. Supreme Court bring the country to national resolution on the freedom to marry. The key lobbying talking points were on how DOMA denied married same-sex couples the respect, protections, and responsibilities given to other married couples by the federal government; that same-sex couples wanted to get married for the same reasons as straight couples; and how federal marriage strengthened families by giving couples the tools and security to protect their families.
Charting the Respect for Marriage Act’s Path Forward
The landmark Respect for Marriage Act was re-introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and introduced for the first time in the U.S. Senate in March 2011 by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY). The bills were introduced with 108 House cosponsors and 22 Senate cosponsors, and introductory press conferences heralded the goal of the legislation – to dismantle DOMA and extend federal respect to the marriages of thousands of same-sex couples.
One of the key vehicles for organizing around the Respect for Marriage Act and ending federal marriage discrimination was the Respect for Marriage Coalition, launched by Freedom to Marry in February 2012 with the Human Rights Campaign as co-chair.Click to read more on the Respect for Marriage Coalition
In April 2011, led by the Republican leadership, the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution held the first hearing of the 112th Congress on “Defending Marriage.” Freedom to Marry attended the hearing and explained the importance of the bill in a statement from Evan Wolfson: “Rather than treating the marriages of same-sex couples the same as any other, DOMA creates a ‘gay exception,’ denying thousands of couples legally married in their own states the dignity and support that only marriage brings and effectively treats couples, some of whom have been together for decades, as strangers under the law.”
In July 2011, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing, “S. 598, The Respect for Marriage Act: Assessing the Impact of DOMA on American Families.” Freedom to Marry worked closely with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and his staff to build a strong list of witnesses for the Senate hearing. On the first panel, Ron Wallen told his heart-breaking story of the loss of his husband of 55 years. After Tom Carrollo died of cancer, Ron Wallen was unable to collect the Social Security survivor benefits that opposite sex spouses are entitled to receive, leaving him unable to make payments on their house. Freedom to Marry flew Ron Wallen to D.C. to testify and helped him draft his testimony for the hearing. Freedom to Marry also reviewed the testimony of Susan Murray, the lead attorney in Vermont. Our founder and president Evan Wolfson testified on the second panel.
Ron Wallen's testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary:
Evan Wolfson testimony before Senate Committee on the Judiciary:
By the end of the 112th Congress, there were 160 cosponsors in the House (including three Republicans) and 32 cosponsors in the Senate. At the end of the 114th Congress, there were 183 cosponsors in the House and 45 in the Senate, the highest numbers for the Respect for Marriage Act, including all but one of the Democratic Senators.
Tactics for Supporting the Respect for Marriage Act
- Develop and Lead the Respect for Marriage Coalition: One of the key vehicles for organizing around the Respect for Marriage Act and ending federal marriage discrimination was the Respect for Marriage Coalition, launched by Freedom to Marry in February 2012 with the Human Rights Campaign as co-chair. The Coalition was a partnership of organizations working together to build support on Capitol Hill for the Respect for Marriage Act and to repeal the discriminatory DOMA. Click for more on the Respect for Marriage Coalition.
- Establish a bipartisan effort that’s serious about reaching across the aisle: It was crucial from the start that the work of Freedom to Marry was bipartisan and included the support of Democrats and Republicans. Beyond the fact that the federal program’s lobbyists were a dynamic duo that could speak to both Democratic and Republican interests, Freedom to Marry was also serious about articulating strong reasons for conservatives to support marriage for same-sex couples. The federal team produced a position paper specifically on Republicans and the Freedom to Marry, highlighting how conservative values of limited government and individual freedom, as well as promoting responsibility and community, all favored support for the freedom to marry. Together, Kathryn Lehman and Jo Deutsch met with moderate Republicans to talk about the freedom to marry, leaving behind the position paper, polling information, and background materials on the freedom to marry. Through this work, two more Republican members cosponsored the bill by the end of the 112th Congress, with more moving closer to support of the freedom to marry. The federal team also worked with Log Cabin Republicans and other right-of-center groups throughout the work to end federal marriage discrimination.
- Share best practices far and wide – and develop materials for other supporters to follow your lead: When you’re trying to raise the profile of your issue and cut through the many policy issues competing for legislators’ attention, you can never have too many constituents reaching out to their representatives – so it’s critical that you expand your base of constituents tasked with delivering your message in a strategic way. As the lead organization lobbying on Capitol Hill for the freedom to marry, Freedom to Marry coordinated building the list of cosponsors for the Respect for Marriage Act,. We shared our successful messaging to advocacy groups both inside the beltway and across the country through in-district calls, meetings and materials. We assembled a packet on how to lobby on the district level and provided activists with information to set up Respect for Marriage Act in-district calls. This included information on how to identify your Members of Congress; schedule your visit, conduct research and prepare for the meeting; deliver resonant messages in your visit; thank the Congressmember; and then sending us a lobby visit form which provided valuable information for further lobbying of the Congressmember.
- Coordinate with other team members to broaden the impact of the legislation – and use it as a vehicle for accomplishing other goals: Freedom to Marry’s focus on building support for the Respect for Marriage Act was on inside the beltway lobbying, but it was clear that real stories from the states and districts made a huge difference and Congressmembers were moved by stories on the impact of DOMA. The federal team coordinated with Freedom to Marry’s digital team, field team, and partner organizations to find people who had personal stories of the harms of DOMA. The federal team was then able to schedule meetings with lawmakers and share these stories on Capitol Hill through lobby visits, videos and personal meetings in the districts.
- Arm supportive legislators with the best available messaging and information: Providing concise and consistent messaging was extremely helpful to Congressmembers and their staff. Early in our lobbying, we developed the Congressional Toolkit with the support of our consultants at Hattaway Communications. This Toolkit was sent to all supportive Congressional staff. The Toolkit contained materials to make the case for the federal recognition of marriages between same-sex couples – and the value of allowing all loving and committed couples to enjoy the protections and benefits of marriage. The Toolkit included templates that contained research-based messages that explained marriage discrimination at the federal level, including the negative consequences of DOMA. We also included information about Freedom to Marry, a Member briefing memo, a bipartisan polling memo, constituent letter responses, floor speeches, in district speeches, town hall talking points, media Q&A samples, editorial board talking points, in-district op-ed samples, and articles that could be adapted for newsletters or websites.
Continuing Support for the Respect for Marriage Act Following Windsor
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Windsor v. U.S., which challenged Section 3 of DOMA. The Supreme Court ruled that Section 3, which prohibited the federal government from respecting marriages between different-sex couples, was unconstitutional and affirmed that all committed, married couples deserve equal legal respect and treatment from the federal government.
The ruling, however, did not strike down all of DOMA. In order to remove the discriminatory language from U.S. Code and end federal marriage discrimination – and to continue shaping the climate around the Supreme Court as we pressed for the full national marriage victory that was our principal goal –Freedom to Marry’s federal team continued to lobby for passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.
Pushing Past Windsor toward Full Repeal of DOMA
On June 26, 2013 – hours after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the core of DOMA – supporters of the freedom to marry in the United States Congress wasted no time in taking steps toward full and final repeal of DOMA. Congressman Nadler and Senator Feinstein reintroduced the Respect for Marriage Act with a record number of cosponsors – 161 in the House, and 42 in the Senate. Congressman Nadler said, “We should rejoice and celebrate today's ruling, but our work is not yet done. The Court has ruled that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, but Congress still must repeal the law in its entirety. That is why we are reintroducing the Respect for Marriage Act, which repeals DOMA in its entirety and sends DOMA into the history books where it belongs. This bill ensures repeal of section 2 of DOMA, which was not at issue in the Windsor case and purports to excuse the states from even considering whether to honor the marriage of a gay and lesbian couple performed by a sister state. The bill also provides a uniform rule for recognizing couples under federal law, ensuring that all lawfully married couples will be recognized under federal law, no matter where they live. We salute today's ruling. It is a tremendously important victory, but it is also a call to all of us to finish the job by passing the Respect for Marriage Act.”
In September 2014, Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign, on behalf of the Respect for Marriage Coalition, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking that the Department of Justice following a lower court ruling act to ensure federal respect for the marriages of same–sex couples in Arkansas, Indiana, and Wisconsin, consistent with the approach taken by the federal government in other states after similar court rulings (Michigan and Utah). The letter was co-signed by more than 50 other groups that comprised the Coalition. It was the first time the Coalition sent a joint letter and it garnered significant media attention.
Over the next year and a half, Freedom to Marry’s lobbying efforts earned several additional cosponsors for the legislation. Throughout the 112th through 114th Congresses, the federal program kept a constant drumbeat on the need to press forward with the Respect for Marriage Act. And even toward the days prior to the U.S. Supreme Court victory affirming the freedom to marry nationwide, the federal team continued to look for new cosponsors for the bill. At the time of the decision, the House bill had 151 cosponsors and the Senate bill had 44 cosponsors. It is a strong example of the way a piece of legislation can serve as a vehicle for inspiring real change in the Beltway.