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When the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve the Respect for Marriage Act early last month, the federal government came one step closer to legalizing gay marriage.

If approved by the House of Representatives, the legislation would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines a legal union as one between only a man and a woman.

Penn’s LGBT community has applauded the potential repeal of DOMA.

“DOMA sends a message of second-class citizenship to LGBT people,” Law professor Tobias Wolff wrote in an email. Wolff, who served as chair of the LGBT Policy Committee during President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, added that “eliminating that discriminatory law would help many LGBT people feel like full and equal members of our national community.”

Currently, Penn offers employees who are in same-sex relationships the same health benefits as employees in heterosexual marriages, with the exception of a federal income tax.

“Repeal of DOMA would mean that same-sex couples would no longer have an automatic chunk taken out of their net income because of tax disparities,” Lambda Alliance chair and College sophomore Hugh Hamilton wrote in an email. He added that the elimination of this problem would positively affect Penn faculty and staff.

While states like New York, New Hampshire and Vermont currently grant same-sex couples full marriage licenses, these couples cannot receive many of the federal benefits that come with marriage.

For example, “you can be married in New York but can’t file federal income tax,” said 1979 Wharton graduate Scott Davenport, the managing director of Freedom to Marry, which advocates marriage equality.

Davenport added that same-sex couples have about 400 to 500 rights granted to them by an individual state government, as opposed to more than 1,300 marriage rights offered by the federal government.

Although marriage laws are currently determined on a state level, states that ban same-sex marriage are not required to recognize these unions. Currently, marriages between same-sex couples are illegal in Pennsylvania.

“While the end of DOMA would have positive effects across the country, it would have a major impact on Pennsylvania, seeing as many of its neighbors now have marriage equality,” Hamilton wrote.

“If DOMA is repealed, I believe a logical next step could be for the federal government to recognize same-sex couples, even though it remains primarily a state issue,” LGBT Center Director Bob Schoenberg added.

Hamilton called the Judiciary Committee’s vote of approval an “encouraging gesture,” noting that DOMA is the “major roadblock to marriage equality.”

“Same-sex couples want to get married for the same reasons everyone else wants to get married,” Davenport said. “We need to change the laws in states, change hearts and minds.”

Today, there are more than 140,000 same-sex couples who have entered into legal unions or marriages, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California Law School.

Davenport said support for same-sex marriage has grown significantly from the Bush to Obama administrations, attributing this increase to the fact that “more people are having that conversation and more people understand that this is the right thing.”

“Speak out about the issue,” Wolff advised Penn students. “Discrimination in our marriage laws hurts the brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters and the friends and loved ones of all of us.”

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