After an impassioned debate, the House voted Friday to define marriage for the first time in federal law as a formal union between “one man and one woman” and deny federal benefits to partners in same-sex marriages.
In an overwhelming 342-67 vote, a majority of Democrats joined Republicans in approving the “Defense of Marriage Act,” sending it to the Senate, where the bill is expected to pass handily.
“The vote today reflects exactly what people in this country feel,” said Rep. Robert Barr, R-Ga., the principal author of the measure. “America today is not ready to redefine marriage” in ways that would recognize same-sex unions. “America will not be the first country in the world that throws the concept of marriage out the window.”
The bill, which now goes to the Senate, would prevent one partner in a homosexual relationship from claiming Social Security, veterans’ or other federal benefits in the event of the other’s death or disability.
It would also bar gay and lesbian couples from filing joint income-tax returns, even if they live under the same roof and share everything else.
The wide margin of passage obscured the heightened tempers of the debate, in which some House members portrayed the dispute in biblical terms as a struggle between good and evil.
An earlier vote on a move to send the bill back to committee, which failed 249-164, was a clearer reflection of the feelings on both sides.
Although President Clinton, a Democrat, has promised to sign the bill, it was advanced mainly by House Republicans who cast the issue in terms of defending the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.
“There is a very radical element that is in the process of redefining what a marriage is,” said Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla. And that could lead, he added, to a limitless expansion of the notion of marriage.
“It does not even have to be limited to human beings….There (would be) no reason why we couldn’t just completely erase whatever boundaries that currently exist on the definition of marriage and say it is a free-for-all, anything goes.”
Opponents portrayed it as an unwarranted invasion of privacy and as a denial of the same civil rights protections that other minorities enjoy in this country.
“It is not right for Congress to step in and intrude into the private relationships and the most personal decisions of (people),” said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. “Love and commitment can exist between a man and a woman and it can and does exist between men and between women.”
The bill would let states ignore gay and lesbian marriages that may be recognized as legal in other states.
Its chief sponsors also said it would vitiate an Hawaii Supreme Court decision that, in effect, ruled that same-sex marriages are not illegal in that state. It returned the case to a lower court for a final decision on how to implement the decision.
The House bill’s sponsors fear that if the Hawaii courts find such marriages are legal, gay couples would go to Hawaii to be married, then return to their home states and demand that the union be recognized there.
Gay rights groups and their allies in the Senate, acknowledging that the measure will pass both chambers, hope to sweeten a bitter defeat by adding language to forbid employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the “Employment Non-Discrimination Act” could be added to the same-sex marriage bill when it is taken up by the Senate early this fall.
Barr and other Republicans called the gay activists’ strategy an effort to short-circuit the same-sex marriage bill, and said Republicans will fight any effort to add the “Employment Non-Discrimination Act” as a rider to the measure.
The bill would not affect the ability of private companies to provide benefits to the gay or lesbian partners of their employees, if they so choose.
Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said his constituents “believe that homosexuality is immoral, that it is based on perversion, that it is based on lust.” And Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., lamented “depraved judgments by some people in our society,” saying “we’re in the midst of a chaos, an attack upon God’s principles.”
But Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights activist and adherent of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said the legislation “seeks to divide our nation…sow seeds of fear, hatred and intolerance….This bill appeals to our worst fears and emotions.”
Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., one of few self-acknowledged gay men in Congress, agreed that “marriage is under attack in our society today.” But he argued that homosexuality was not the culprit.
“In all due respect,” he said, “lesbians have no interest in making you their husbands. And gay men have no interest in pursuing your wives. Rather, marriage is under far more attack from alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, and, yes, even Sunday afternoon football.”
Gunderson also took issue with the assertion that same-sex partners should not be entitled to the same benefits and privileges as spouses of different gender.
“Why should members of Congress be allowed to extend their health insurance and survivors’ benefits to their second and third wives, when I can’t extend it to my partner of 13 years?” he asked.
That was seen by some members as a swipe at the thrice-married Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who had praised marriage as the “basic building block” of society and then launched a bitter attack on “extremists who are bent on completely eradicating the concept of marriage as all civilizations not only know but have known it.”
xxxx HOW THEY VOTED Here’s how area members of the House of Representatives voted on HR 3396, which allows states to refuse to recognize marriages between spouses of the same sex.
Washington Yes: George Nethercutt, Rick White, Jack Metcalf, Linda Smith, Doc Hastings and Randy Tate, all R, and Norm Dicks, D. No: Jim McDermott, D. Not voting: Jennifer Dunn, R.
Idaho Yes: Helen Chenoweth and Mike Crapo, both R.