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Senate panel to consider end of gay marriage ban

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There has been a lot for supporters of gay marriage to celebrate this year, including a new law that permits same-sex nuptials in New York.

Back in February, the Justice Department said it would no longer defend the federal law that restricts marriage to heterosexual couples, citing doubts about its constitutionality. This week, the White House said President Obama wants to overturn the law. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider a bill that would do that and — for the first time — give federal benefits to same-sex couples who marry.

Those benefits would have made a big difference for Ron Wallen of Indio, Calif., who spent more than half a century with Tom Carrollo. Carrollo died in March after a long illness, a few months shy of their third wedding anniversary.

Now Wallen’s not only grieving for his husband, but he’s also facing financial chaos.

“It’s hard to accept that it’s the American government that’s throwing me out of my family home,” Wallen told NPR.

Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a marriage must be between a man and a woman. So Wallen is not entitled to get his husband’s small monthly pension or his Social Security survivor’s benefits, which are double the payments Wallen gets on his own.

“I lost my husband, my partner of ... 58 years and the love of my life, and now I’m going to lose the home we shared under very adverse circumstances because of this law,” Wallen said.

Wallen will appear Wednesday in the Senate, where he’ll ask lawmakers to pass the bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. The bill would also make clear that same-sex couples who marry are entitled to file joint tax returns, qualify for Social Security survivors’ benefits and enjoy other rights under federal law.

Only hours before the hearing, the White House weighed in, saying President Obama supports the bill.

A spokesman said Obama believes the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights as straight people.

“The president has long called for a repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which continues to have a real impact on the lives of real people,” Shin Inouye said.

Five states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages will begin Sunday in New York.

But Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, says there’s still a lot of misunderstanding.

“I think for many people in this country they are unaware that in states where same-sex marriage is the law of the land — like New York, like Massachusetts — we are still denied those fundamental federal benefits in those states,” he said.

Many people are still angry that the Obama Justice Department walked away from the Defense of Marriage Act, leading the GOP-led House to hire a private lawyer to back the law in court challenges.

Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, told NPR that marriages between a man and a woman deserve a special place under the law.

“These unions are unique. They make new life. They connect children in love to their mothers and fathers,” she said. “That’s not bigotry. It’s common sense.”

The prospects for repealing DOMA this congressional session are cloudy. There’s more support in the Senate than in the House, but it’s likely to be a campaign issue in the next round of elections.

Wallen says he knows any change in the law is likely going to come too late to help him.

“I just want it to be right and if not today, tomorrow, and this is the time to start it,” he said. “The time is now.”

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.


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