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"Defense of marriage acts" (DOMA)

2011: Personal impacts of DOMA.

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In this web site, "SSM" is an acronym for "Same-sex marriage"

"LGBT" is an acronym for "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and transgender"

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The personal impact of DOMA:

The Wall Street Journal wrote:

"While permitting same-sex couples to marry is an issue for the states, gay-rights advocates contend that DOMA prevents couples from receiving certain federal services and rights, including Social Security, tax benefits and the ability to sponsor a foreign spouse for a visa or citizenship. 1

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry -- a group promoting SSM, -- said that DOMA is:

"... the most glaring example of state-sponsored discrimination against its people." 1

In mid-2011, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund submitted a written testimony to the U.S. Senate's Committee on the Judiciary. She wrote that DOMA is:

"... one of the most discriminatory and farthest-reaching laws ever to emerge against our community. The law is grossly unjust and places significant harm on far too many families in our country. It is shocking that in 2011, legally married couples in the United States are being singled out and selectively denied fundamental rights by their own federal government. Too many have been hurt for too long because of DOMA, and its repeal is long overdue." 2

One of many tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals who is currently adversely affected by DOMA is Andrew Sorbo, a retired school teacher in Connecticut. After his husband, Colin Atterbury, died two years ago, Andrew was left with only 20% of the couple's prior combined income. Mr. Atterbury had been a federal employee at the Veteran's Hospital in West Haven, CT. DOMA prevents Mr. Sorbo receive his spouse's pension. He said:

"It was a tremendous financial loss. It is unfair to know that if I were a woman or if Colin were a woman, either one of us would be able to inherit from the other." 1

Another person harmed by DOMA was Edith Windsor in New York State. She legally married her long-time partner in 2007 and was widowed in 2009. The IRS forced her to pay over a third of a million dollars in inheritance taxes. If her partner had been male, she would have paid nothing. Her situation resulted in one of many the federal court cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act: Windsor v. United States.

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Why does DOMA cause injustices to individuals and couples?

The DOMA law basically requires that the federal government take a "hands-off" approach to anything involving relationships of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals (LGB). Thus, even though a couple may be married in the District of Columbia or in one of the growing number of states that have legalized SSM, and have had their marriage registered by their local jurisdiction, the DOMA law requires the federal government to treat the couple as a pair of friends or roommates -- as "legal strangers" to each other. Also under DOMA, individual states that have not yet legalized same-sex marriages in their states do not have to recognize out-of-state SSMs either.

If the DOMA law were repealed, the federal government could become much more proactive in protecting the rights of all of its citizens, including both same-sex and opposite-sex married couples and their children.

Under the "Full Faith and Credit Clause" and/or the "Equal Protection Clause" of the U.S. Constitution, states might be required to recognize the marriages of loving, committed, married same-sex couples. Cases like the following might not have happened:

  • 1983-NOV: Sharon Kowalski, a lesbian in a long-term partnership, became profoundly disabled as the result of an automobile accident . She was hit by a drunk driver and taken to the hospital. Her family believed that their daughter was a heterosexual who had been seduced into a lesbian relationship. Because the couple had not prepared an advance health care directive, Sharon's family gained access to their daughter and transferred her to a nursing home many hundreds of miles away from her home in  St. Cloud, MN. She was she was kept there under dreadful conditions. Karen Thompson, her partner, was prevented from visiting.

    According to the Windy City Times:
    "Under her father's care, Kowalski received virtually no visitors in the nursing home and, apparently, few check-ups. Without any direct care or contact, nobody noticed her toes gradually curled under her, for example. (The problem was corrected through surgery.) According to Thompson, the most surprising thing is that Kowalski never seemed to scar emotionally. Kowalski still has many physical scars, but she's standing in a walking brace, talking, and cheating at cards. Today, 23 years after her accident, Kowalski seems to be doing the impossible. Thompson said that all she ever asked was for people to not put limits on a human being.'

    A [legal] case that began on July 25, 1985, handed down its final decision Dec. 17, 1991. It was a small victory for the LGBT community but a large one for Sharon Kowalski, who got to be reunited with her lesbian partner." 6
    In 1988, at the Houston TX "Gay and Lesbian Pride" parade, the march was led by a woman pushing an empty wheelchair to symbolize the injustice of the forced separation of Sharon and Karen. Many subsequent parades began the same way. 7

  • 2007-FEB: Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond, 39, were a lesbian couple who had been together for 18 years. They were on vacation with their three adopted children, aged 9, 11, and 13 in Miami, FL, and were on board a cruise ship in the harbor when Pond suddenly collapsed. She was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center of Jackson Memorial Hospital. Medical personnel refused to let Langbehn visit her partner, even after she supplied them with Power of Attorney documents.

    According to Now Public:

    "Langbehn begged and pleaded for hours to be given access to the room, but was denied. Langbehn said she was allowed in to see her partner for only five minutes as a priest gave Pond the last rites."

    "Pond died from a brain aneurysm while Langbehn was forced to stay in the waiting room. It wasn't until Pond's sister arrived at the Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital that Langbehn got any information. ..." 4

    Langbehn never actually got to speak with her partner; Pond was in a coma by the time that the hospital allowed them to be together. Her exhausted children were allowed to see their mother at midnight. She died the next morning. Her heart, kidneys, and liver were donated to four patients and live on in them.

    Lambda Legal launched a lawsuit against the hospital on behalf of Ms. Langbehn. It was dismissed.

    Tara Parker-Pope wrote an article in the New York Times about the incident. 3 Almost two years later, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel spotted the article and showed it to President Obama. The article motivated President Obama to issue an executive order concerning hospital visitation for LGBT persons and their spouses and partners.

    According to Now Public:
    "President Obama personally called Langbehn to apologize for the way she was treated. Langbehn, who said she tried for years to get an apology from the Miami hospital without success, says she was humbled by the phone call and believes that the new rule would mean that her partner didn't die in vain." 4

The executive order may not be legal, because it orders hospitals to recognize same-sex relationships and marriages. The courts may regard ths as conflicting with the DOMA law which prohibits the federal government from recognizing the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, even if the couple is married. Fortunately, no politician or conservative advocacy group has stepped forward so far to challenge the executive order. However, this executive order may be only temporary, as it could be cancelled by the present or any future president.

On 2011-OCT-20, Ms. Langbehn was one of 13 recipients who received the Presidential Citizens Medal. President Obama said:

"As a father and husband, I can't begin to imagine the grief that they must have felt in that moment -- their anger and their sense that the world was not fair. But they refused to let that anger define them," the president said. "They each became, in Janice's words, an 'accidental activist.'  And thanks to their work, there are parents and partners who will never have to go through what they went through." 5

Her citation stated:

"Janice Langbehn transformed her own profound loss into a resounding call for compassion and equality. When the woman she loved, Lisa Pond, suddenly suffered a brain aneurysm, Janice and her children were denied the right to stand beside her in her final moments. Determined to spare others from similar injustice, Janice spoke out and helped ensure that same-sex couples can support and comfort each other through some of life’s toughest trials.  The United States honors Janice Langbehn for advancing America’s promise of equality for all." 5

She issued a statement the same day:

"It is a great honor to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal. It is my hope that my family's loss, this medal, and the attention it brings to the discrimination our families have faced during the most difficult moments, will help ease suffering and ensure that no family has to go through what my family went through." 5

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Some negative effects of DOMA in the military:

According to American Progress, because of the federal DOMA law that requires the federal government to recognize only opposite-sex marriages:

"Nearly 100 of the statutory benefits conferred on our troops depend on this definition of marital status and are denied same-sex military spouses and their children -- including housing and moving benefits, health insurance, and employment assistance. In fact, DOMA would deny legal spouses immediate emergency notification if their husband or wife was killed, wounded, or missing in action and deny them the right to be laid to rest beside them in a military cemetery." 8

The 2013-MAY/JUN issue of OutServe Magazine lists some of the benefits available to married opposite-sex couples in the U.S. military that are denied married same-sex couples because of the federal DOMA law:

  • 27,000 military spouses were hired by 129 businesses through the Military Spouse Employment Partnership. All 27,000 were in opposite-sex marriages. The program is not available to same-sex spouses.

  • Service members with dependents are given an 18% to 23% increase in Basic Allowance for Housing. Amount given toa same-sex dependent: 0%

  • Opposite-sex spouses of deceased service members receive a $987 monthly allowance for education and job training. Same-sex spouses get $0.00.

  • Military health insurance and health care is extended to opposite-sex spouses of service members at no cost to them. This program is not available to same-sex spouses. The average cost to a military family headed by a same-sex couple is $5,615 for health insurance alone.

  • Opposite-sex spouses of service members who have died while on active duty receive a $1,215 per month dependency and indemnity compensation. Same-sex widows/widowers receive nothing.

  • A miliary widow or widower of an opposite-sex spouse is guaranteed a grant, if needed, to bring their annual income up to $8,219. No such grant is available to same-sex couples. 9

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Related essay:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Shift on Gay-Marriage Law Will Affect Array of Policies," Wall Street Journal, 2011-FEB-25, at:
  2. Rea Carey, "Written Testimony Submitted to the Committee on the Judiciary U.S. Senate," National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011-JUL-20, at: This is a PDF file.
  3. Tara Parker-Pope, "Kept from a dying partner's bedside," New York Times, 2009-MAY-18, at:
  4. Michael Small, "Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond: Homosexual Visitation Rights," Now Public, 2010-APR-16, at:
  5. Chris Geidner, "Janice Langbehn Honored With Presidential Citizens Medal," Poliglot, 2011-OCT-20, at:
  6. Kera Soko, "Sharon is Home," Windy City Times, 2007-JUL-11, at:
  7. David Fagan and Skip Teauxmelou, "30 (Plus) Years of Pride," Out-Smart, 2008-JUN-01, at:
  8. Christina DiPasquale, "Collateral Damage: How the Defense of Marriage Act Harms the Troops and Undermines the U.S. Military," Center for American Progress, 2012-FEB-21, at:
  9. "Fast Facts on DOMA," OutServe Magazine, 2013-MAY/JUN, at:

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Home > Religious info. > Basic > Marriage > SSM > SSM menu > DOMA > here

Home > "Hot" topics > Homosexuality > SSM > SSM menu > DOMA > here

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Copyright © 2011 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-FEB-25
Latest update: 2013-JUN-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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