News - June 1996

ACLU Calls Anti-Gay Marriage Bill Unconstitutional

WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties submitted statement May 15 before a House subcommittee hearing on a bill that would outlaw marriages between lesbian and gay couples, calling the bill "a deplorable act of hostility unworthy of the Unites States Congress."

"For more than 200 years, Congress has left the business of granting marriage licenses to the states," said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "That tradition should not be disturbed. This bill throws it on the trash heap for no reason other than to belittle the relationships of lesbian and gay citizens."

The Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held hearings Wednesday to consider a bill introduced last week that would deny recognition of future marriages between same-sex couples by redefining marriage in Federal law as a "legal union between one man and one woman." That would have the effect of treating legally married gay couples as strangers under all Federal laws and programs, from Medicaid through the tax code.

A second provision of the bill would attempt to carve a "gay exception" to the Constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause by allowing states to ignore same-sex marriages performed in any other state. That clause guarantees that the rights of people in one state will be honored by the other states. Congress has invoked its power to say what effect other state laws have on only four occasions -- and only when it sought to promote uniformity among the states.

That provision explicitly applies to judgments of state courts, including divorce, inheritance and commercial judgments which take account of marriage, the ACLU said. To that extent, it is an "unmistakable violation of the Constitution," said Coles in the statement submitted jointly with Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington National Office.

"The United States Supreme Court has ruled again and again that the Full Faith and Credit Clause obligates every state to respect the judgments of other states, including judgments of divorce," they added.

The ACLU also attacked the same provision as "very bad policy." "This is one nation," the statement continued. "It does not make sense to say to Americans that the existence of their marriages depends on which states they travel through on vacation, or which states their employer transfers them to Americans have a right to go from state to state, and giving up one's most central, most intimate relationship should not be the price of exercising it."

The bill, entitled the "Defense of Marriage Act," was drafted in close association with radical conservative groups who have sought to elevate the marriage issue into presidential politics. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate last Wednesday.

The issue over same-sex marriages have been raised in response to a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in May 1993 that the denial of marriage licenses to three lesbian and gay couples may violate the state's Equal Rights Amendment. The Justices sent the case back to the trial court, to decide if the state can prove a "compelling state interest," in denying marriage to same sex couples.

The case will go to trial in August later this year, and a final decision from the state supreme court is not expected until 1997.

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