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posted Friday, July 15, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 28
Fireworks at Senate DOMA hearing
Al Franken takes on Focus on the Family
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Fireworks at Senate DOMA hearing
Al Franken takes on Focus on the Family

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Respect for Marriage Act erupted in fireworks on July 20, as Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) challenged the testimony of a Focus on the Family official.

Franken is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which would repeal DOMA. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Among the witnesses called to testify along with individuals impacted by DOMA was Thomas Minnery, senior vice president for public policy at Focus on the Family.

Minnery told the committee that a 2010 Health and Human Services study showed that children in households headed by straight married parents had better health than those in other kinds of households.

Franken challenged Minnery's interpretation of the HHS study. The issue was the definition of 'nuclear family' used by HHS.

'I checked the study out,' Franken told Minnery, 'and I would like to enter it into the record, if I may, that it actually doesn't say what you said it says.'

'Isn't it true, Mr. Minnery, that a married, same-sex couple that has had or adopted kids would fall under the definition of a nuclear family in the study that you cite?' Franken asked.

'I would think that the study when it cites 'nuclear family' would mean a family headed by husband and wife,' Minnery said.

'It doesn't,' Franken said, to laughter from the audience.

He then read the study's definition of 'nuclear family' aloud, adding 'I frankly don't really know how we can trust the rest of your testimony if you are reading studies these ways.'

'Sen. Franken is right,' the lead author of the HHS study told Politico reporters later.

Dr. Debra L. Blackwell said that her study did not exclude same-sex couples, nor did it exclude them from the 'nuclear family' category provided their family met the study's criteria.

In addition to Minnery, the Judiciary Committee heard testimony from individuals who have been impacted by the federal ban on same-sex marriages.

Andrew Sorbo, of Cheshire, Connecticut, was married to Colin Atterbury. Atterbury, a retired Veterans Affairs hospital administrator and professor of medicine at Yale University, died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, only four months after their wedding.

Sorbo, now retired, worked for 35 years as a history teacher and principal. Because of DOMA, he is not entitled to his husband's federal pension and health benefits, reducing his annual income by more than 80%.

Ron Wallen, of Indio, California, is in a similar situation. He and his partner Tom Carrollo lived together for 58 years, and were finally married in 2008 during the brief period that same-sex marriage was legal in California.

Carrollo died of cancer in March this year. Because DOMA prevents Wallen from getting Social Security survivor benefits - which an opposite-sex spouse would receive - his income has been reduced to the point where he is no longer able to keep up his mortgage payments and will lose his home only months after losing his husband.

Susan and Karen Murray, of Ferrisburgh, Vermont, also testified. Susan Murray was co-counsel in the lawsuit Baker v. Vermont, which established civil unions in Vermont in 2000.

A second panel of witnesses included HRC President Joe Solmonese, Freedom to Marry Executive Director Evan Wolfson, and Edward Whelan, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Whelan unsuccessfully brought suit to force Judge Vaughn Walker to recuse himself from the Prop 8 case on grounds that Walker is Gay and therefore has an interest in same-sex marriage.

Former Army Lt. Dan Choi, who was not invited to testify at the July 20 hearing, criticized the list of witnesses as unrepresentative.

'Marriage equality is a matter of civil rights, steeped in the language and moral lessons of the historic American struggle for inclusion and equality,' Choi said. 'That the panel of Gay witnesses is exclusively white and privileged brings shameful discredit to the true character of our broad community and inclusive civil rights movement.'

According to the Washington Blade, the Judiciary Committee did not respond to a request for comment on Choi's objections. Freedom to Marry also did not respond, and HRC responded by declining to comment.

Meanwhile, committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) charged that pro-DOMA witnesses were intimidated by their fear of LGBT activists.

'The minority very much hoped to call a witness today at this hearing to testify in support of DOMA,' Grassley said in his opening remarks at the hearing.

'I'm sure she would have done an excellent job. She declined, however, citing as one reason the threats and intimidations that have been leveled against not only her but her family as a result of her public support of DOMA. She will continue to write on this subject but will no longer speak publicly.'

It was rumored that the witness in question was NOM's Maggie Gallagher, but the Washington Blade reported that she had not even been invited to testify.

No further committee hearings on the Respect for Marriage Act have been scheduled at this time. Under Senate rules, the committee would have to vote to send the bill to the full Senate before any debate could take place.

Both Washington state senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, are co-sponsors of the bill but are not members of the Judiciary Committee.

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