House votes to strip federal courts of jurisdiction over gay marriage

Friday, July 23rd 2004, 6:12 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Gay marriage opponents wanted more, but House Republicans gave them at least a symbolic election-year victory.

Republicans passed legislation in the House on Thursday, 233-194, to prevent federal courts from ordering states to recognize same-sex unions that took place in other states. Democrats objected to the bill as an unconstitutional attack on gays and the federal judiciary to satisfy the GOP's political base.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said the legislation is a welcome interim step. ``It provides us the opportunity to isolate some of these judicial rewrites of marriage. Until we can get an amendment to the Constitution, this will keep it from spreading,'' Perkins said.

Supporters said the House legislation would protect the institution of marriage by reining in federal judges who might otherwise impose gay marriage on states that have banned it. ``Marriage is under attack,'' said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., referring to the Massachusetts state court decision allowing same-sex marriages.

One after another, Republicans criticized what they called ``activist'' judges, with one lawmaker comparing the Supreme Court to the Soviet Politburo. Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., responded that Republicans did not complain of judicial activism after the high court's 5-4 ruling that ended ballot recounts in Florida and effectively called the 2000 president election for George W. Bush.

The Bush administration backs the bill, which is not likely to advance in the Senate, but said more is needed. ``To fully protect marriage from activist judges, including activist state court judges, the administration also urges Congress to pass ... a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman,'' the administration said in a statement.

However, Senate Republicans last week were forced to shelve the marriage amendment for lack of support.

The fallback House bill would strip the Supreme Court and other federal courts of their jurisdiction to rule on challenges to state bans on gay marriages under a provision of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. That law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and says states are not compelled to recognize gay marriages that take place in other states.

Democrats said the bill is an unprecedented attempt to choke off federal judicial review, a claim backed by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The effect of the bill would be to single out gays and lesbians, barring them from going into federal court to seek to have their marriages recognized, several Democrats said. Civil rights groups said the bill is unconstitutional for that reason.

``We face no less than a sign on the courthouse door: 'You may not defend your constitutional rights in this court. You may not seek equal protection here,''' said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the House's lone declared lesbian. ``Today, the 'you' is gay and lesbian citizens. But who would be next?''

Some Republican opponents of the legislation also said they wanted to avoid setting a precedent that could used by a Congress controlled by Democrats to satisfy their allies or by lawmakers who wanted to shield future unconstitutional legislation from federal court review.