House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she is "very optimistic" the Supreme Court will strike down a 1996 law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman for all federal purposes, leading a chorus of Democratic lawmakers asking the judges to do so.
Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said Wednesday that there did not seem to be a rational basis for the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which House Republicans defended Wednesday before the Supreme Court, though most were silent politically.
The court case against DOMA centers on a New York woman, Edith Windsor, who was ordered to pay more than $360,000 in estate taxes after her female spouse died. The couple's marriage was performed in Canada and recognized by New York state, but not by the U.S. government, resulting in the imposition of the standard death tax, a levy from which spouses are exempt.
Justices asked constructive questions about the law's merits in a "dignified proceeding," according to Mrs. Pelosi.
"The arguments, the debate seemed to favor striking down DOMA," she told reporters at the Capitol.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday completed a historic twin bill of arguments concerning the status of same-sex marriage in America. On Tuesday, the justices listened to legal arguments for and against Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to affirm the traditional definition of marriage.
The Rev. Rob Schenck, chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Bradley, Ill., appeared in front of the iconic court building Wednesday afternoon to call for an a "guarantee" that military chaplains and civilian clergy under the auspices of the federal government would not be forced to violate their religious principles if the court compelled the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage.
"While we stand for the defense of marriage as between one man and one woman, it is quite clear that that definition on the federal level is at great risk, likely by 5 to 4," he told reporters.
President Obama, who last year changed his stance to support gay marriage in a high-profile announcement, is monitoring developments in the case. A White House spokesman said Wednesday that the administration has the responsibility to enforce laws that are on the books, and "we'll do that even for laws that we disagree with, including the Defense of Marriage Act."
House Republicans have been conspicuously silent on the issue, even though they are they are on record as defending DOMA through former solicitor general Paul Clement, who appeared before the justices Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are coming out in favor of same-sex marriage by the day, with Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Begich of Alaska, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina and Jon Tester of Montana declaring their support this week.
Mrs. Pelosi was among just 67 House members to vote against DOMA, which won lopsided bipartisan votes in both the House (342-67) and the Senate (85-14) before President Clinton signed it into law in 1996.
Since then, the political landscape surrounding same-sex marriage has changed dramatically. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized the rite, and several other states offer civil unions.
Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who railed against DOMA in 1996, said it is not too late for the nation to roll back a law that Congress overwhelmingly approved.
"DOMA was wrong 17 years ago, it is wrong today," he said on MSNBC on Wednesday. "It is my hope and my prayer that [the court] would declare this piece of legislation unconstitutional. ... If we fail to get it right, history will not be kind to us as a people and as a nation."
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