Leahy says federal government should recognize same-sex marriage

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(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy says the federal government should recognize same-sex marriages and repeal a law that prohibits such recognition.

Leahy voted for the law 16 years ago. But as VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, he says he wouldn’t do the same today.

(Sneyd) A new debate about the federal government’s role in marriage has developed now that a small wave of states has decided to allow same-sex couples to marry.

The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was enacted during the Clinton administration when the question of broadening marriage statutes to include gay and lesbian couples first became an issue.

Senator Leahy says he doesn’t see much need for the law anymore.

(Leahy) "Well I think now that you have states that are voting for and having same-sex marriages – Vermont has, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, others, Connecticut – the Defense of Marriage Act is unnecessary, should be repealed."

(Sneyd) But he did think it was necessary in 1996. Leahy says he voted for DOMA to protect the rights of states to define marriages themselves.

DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and allows states to do the same thing.

Leahy says he wouldn’t vote the same way if he faced the bill now.

(Leahy) "If I was voting —  if this matter was coming the first time, I’d vote differently than I did then. Because I think the states are now ahead of the Congress on this. I was concerned at the time I voted for it that we may be facing the possibility of having a national law that would override states and would not give Vermont to do what it want or California the freedom to do just the opposite of Vermont."

(Sneyd) Repealing DOMA could have wide implications. Current law prohibits same-sex couples, even those from states where they’re allowed to marry, from a long list of federal benefits, such as collecting their partner’s Social Security.

The Massachusetts attorney general last week sued the federal government on that question.

Leahy says he’s always believed gay and lesbian couples shouldn’t be discriminated against. He says he’s come to the conclusion that DOMA is discriminatory.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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