WASHINGTON–The Senate waded into the emotionally and politically-charged issue of gay marriage Wednesday, with the first-ever hearing on repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee heard deeply personal testimony from gay and lesbian witnesses, including a widower from Connecticut, about how that federal law has undermined their financial security and eroded their dignity. They also heard from forceful opponents of gay marriage, who said it was an affront to the institution, harmful to children, and a slippery slope toward the sanction of polygamy.

The hearing room was packed with gay rights advocates and same-sex couples, as the committee engaged in a divisive debate over the merits of DOMA and a corresponding push to repeal of that law. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had introduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would strip DOMA from the federal books.

Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and it bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage. It also says states can’t be forced to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state.

“DOMA was wrong in 1996 and it is wrong today,” said Feinstein. “Family law has traditionally been the preserve of the state law.” Noting that states set marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance laws, she said, “The single exception is DOMA.”

But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the panel’s ranking Republican, said Feinstein’s Respect for Marriage Act had an Orwellian ring to it.

“This bill would undermine, not restore, marriage,” he said. He said marriage was created to foster procreation, and “it exists more to benefit children than adults.”

Grassley seemed amazed that the Senate was even holding such a hearing. “I never thought I would have to defend traditional marriage. It’s been the foundation of society for 6,000 years,” he said.

In practice, DOMA denies legally married same-sex couples a bevy of pension, tax, and health benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy. Take the situation of Andrew Sorbo, a 64-year-old retired school teacher from Berlin, Conn.

He and his partner of nearly 30 years, Collin Atterbury, were legally married in Connecticut in 2009. Atterbury, a professor of medicine at Yale and the chief liver disease doctor at West Haven Connecticut Veterans Administration Center, died four months later of pancreatic cancer.

As his partner grew ever more ill, Sorbo told the Senate panel, “DOMA hung over us like a dark and ominous cloud.” And even though they did everything they could to protect their financial assets in advance, “the financial impact due to DOMA came swiftly after Collin’s death.”

The law made Sorbo ineligible for Atterbury’s VA pension, which was 80 percent of their household income. It also meant he could not get health insurance through the VA and had to purchase it in the private market, an expensive proposition. Just transferring his partner’s Yale IRA account, for which he was named the sole beneficiary, took hours and hours of phone calls, haggling, and explaining. Sorbo said he was eventually forced to sell the house he had shared with Abberbury in Cheshire and downsize to a condominium in Berlin.

“Leaving our home of 18 years is a moment I will never forget,” he said.  “The damage that DOMA inflicts every day on the lives of decent Americans is not only financial, but also psychological as well. The toll on our belief in the justice and fairness of our society is incalculable. Were Collin sitting by my side today, Collin would implore you to remove this insult to our dignity and… to restore the economic justice that DOMA denies us.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that Sorbo’s experience illustrates how DOMA interferes with states’ rights.

“What really matters here is the respect for Connecticut law,” he said. “The federal government should recognize that law and give it the kind of sanctity that the founders of this nation meant for the laws our states to have.”

But others offered a starkly different view. “This is forced political correctness,” said Thomas Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group.

David Austin R. Nimocks, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund and an attorney defending DOMA in court, said that “government has an interest in marriage because it has an interest in children.”

He argued that defending marriage as an institution reserved for the union between one man and one woman was the “best way to promote healthy families,” adding that the “ideal family structure for a child is a family headed by” a married heterosexual couple.

Edward Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted that DOMA passed Congress with strong bipartisan support, including many of the Democrats who are now pushing for its repeal.

More broadly, he argued that if Congress abandons the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, it’s a “slippery slope… to get to polyamory,” which he suggested was part of “the left’s” current agenda. That remark drew a few guffaws of disbelief from the audience.

Outside the hearing room, there’s little question that public sentiment has shifted on the question of gay marriage since DOMA was first enacted. At that time, no states had legalized gay marriage. Now, Connecticut and four other states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized gay marriage. And on Sunday, New York will become the sixth state to do so.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, made reference to that at the close of Wednesday’s session, noting that hundreds of gay couples will be lining  up across his home state on Sunday to “tie the knot.”

“They’ve raised children together, battled illnesses together and on Sunday our state of New York will recognize that love, that life, that commitment with a marriage license,” he said. DOMA’s days, he and others suggested, were numbered.

But there’s no real chance that this Congress would act to repeal DOMA. It would be a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled House and probably couldn’t get through the narrowly-divided Senate either.

DOMA’s fate could be decided by the courts instead. A Connecticut couple, Joanne Pedersen and Ann Meitzen of Waterford, and other plaintiffs challenged the law’s constitutionality last year. The U.S. Department of Justice had been defending the law, but after a review, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Administration would pull out of the case. Holder said the Justice Department had concluded the law was unconstitutional.

Sorbo, for his part, said he was “thrilled” to be part of Wednesday’s proceedings, but he was sanguine about the political prospects for DOMA repeal.

“As a student of history, I’m very cognizant of how this is the beginning of probably a long process,” he said.  “I think it very well may be that it’ll reach the Supreme Court before the Congress acts.”

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