Senate Republicans: Gay Marriage Not a Civil Rights Issue

In Senate committee, GOP argues gay-marriage fight can't be compared to African-Americans' struggle.

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Gay marriage can't be compared to African-Americans' struggle for equal rights, said Republicans in a Senate hearing today.

In a partisan 10-8 vote, the Judiciary Committee passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Democrats claimed the vote indicated a strong step toward justice and civil rights, but Republicans disagreed, arguing gay marriage isn't in the same category as issues like interracial marriage.

"Traditional marriage in many states until the 1960s was limited racially for reasons that had nothing to do with the creation of marriage as an institution and everything to do with racial discrimination," said the committee's ranking member, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, at the hearing. He cited the Supreme Court case that ended the ban on interracial marriage. "Loving v. Virginia, which has been referenced a number of times, has nothing to do with gay marriage."

[Read about last week's DOMA hearing.]

Grassley referred to an op-ed in the New York Times that quotes African-American civil rights leader Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference as taking umbrage at statements like "gay is the new black" and efforts to liken the struggles of gay Americans to those of black Americans.

The op-ed notes that Henderson supports gay marriage, but points to slavery as a huge difference—as well as the fact that African-Americans "couldn't make a secret of what set them apart from others" during their struggle for justice.

Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions took it a step further, wondering where the accusations of violating civil rights would stop. He said the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman was a sound one that makes sense, and anything else becomes tricky.

"Is it a violation of civil rights to say that two women who live together, share expenses, [or] two men who live together and share expenses but don't have sexual relationship can't receive governmental benefits?" Sessions asked. "What about two sisters? What about other relationships?"

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

But New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer held that such arguments were strikingly similar to those in historic debates over discrimination based on race, gender, physical disabilities, or economic status.

"[Opponents] said, 'This discrimination is different than previous types of discrimination.' Or they said, 'We shouldn't do it because a lot of people don't like it. They don't want black and white people to be married,'" Schumer explained. "But those barriers fell, and these barriers will fall, too."

Other Democrats agreed, like Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who said he voted for DOMA when it passed in 1996 but now believes he was wrong to do so. "Every generation of senators gets a chance to put an end to some form of discrimination in America," Durbin said.

He scoffed at Republican arguments that allowing same-sex couples to receive spousal Social Security benefits and other entitlements would hurt the already struggling budgets of those programs. "You can do the calculations, and you know, this could end up costing us some money," Durbin said. "Well, I think striking down discrimination based on race may have cost us a little money. Discrimination based on gender may have cost us in some government programs. It was worth it."

[Read: House Could Spend $1.5M Defending Marriage Act.]

Republicans complained that the issue is a distraction from pressing economic and employment concerns since the bill is unlikely to garner time or a vote on the Senate floor this session—and even if it passed the Senate, the Republican-led House would be unlikely to take it up. But Democrats maintained that what they believe is justice is worth pushing forward, even if it doesn't become law—yet.

"The cause of justice will be advanced when this committee votes in favor of repealing DOMA, in favor of marriage equality," said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal. "The vote will mark a historic and dramatic step forward in the fight for social justice in this country."