U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a stalwart supporter of LGBT equality who regularly attends gay events in his Atlanta district, opened a congressional hearing on Wednesday by urging for the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.
“We are one people, one family, the American family, and we all live together in one house, the American house. Pass this bill,” Lewis said.
His comments came as the Senate opened an initial hearing into the legislation, a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that serves as a federal ban on same-sex unions.
Lewis added the Congress should not only repeal DOMA, but work to ensure marriage equality for everyone.
“Marriage is a basic human right. No government, federal or state, should tell people they cannot be married. We should encourage people to love and not hate.,” Lewis said.
The hearing on Tuesday was also expected to include testimony from HRC President Joe Solmonese, Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and anti-gay activists from the Alliance Defense Fund and Focus on the Family.
Lewis, who’s booming voice and calls for LGBT equality are a staple of the Atlanta Pride festival (photo), AIDS Walk Atlanta and Human Rights Campaign Gala Dinner each year, also said that it’s unbelievable that the hearing is even taking place.
“I find it unbelievable that in the year 2011 there is still a need to hold hearings and debate whether or not a human being should be able to marry the one they love,” Lewis said.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced that it supports the congressional effort to repeal DOMA. The decision comes little more than two weeks after Obama was pressed on same-sex marriage during a White House press conference and earlier, a gay fundraiser in New York City. Obama also defended his lack of full support for marriage equality during his annual Pride reception in June that included a half-dozen Atlanta activists.
In February, Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role as a foot soldier of the civil rights movement.
Lewis’ full statement during the hearing:
“Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley, Members of the Committee, I thank you for inviting me to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. It is an honor to be here.
I am very happy to see the Judiciary Committee holding hearings to address the issue of marriage equality. But at the same time, Mr. Chairman, I must admit I find it unbelievable that in the year 2011 there is still a need to hold hearings and debate whether or not a human being should be able to marry the one they love.
I grew up in southern Alabama, outside of a little city called Troy. Throughout my entire childhood, I saw those signs that said “white restroom,” “colored restroom,” “white water fountain,” “colored water fountain.” I tasted the bitter fruits of racism and discrimination, and I did not like it. And in 1996 when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, the taste of that old bitter fruit filled my mouth once again.
The Defense of Marriage Act is a stain on our democracy. We must do away with this unjust, discriminatory law once and for all. It reminds me of another dark time in our nation’s history, the many years when states passed laws banning blacks and whites from marrying. We look back at that time now with disbelief, and one day we will look back on this period with that same sense of disbelief.
When people used to ask Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about interracial marriage, he would say, “Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.” Marriage is a basic human right. No government, federal or state, should tell people they cannot be married. We should encourage people to love and not hate.
Human rights, civil rights, these are issues of dignity. Every human being walking this Earth, man or woman, gay or straight, is entitled to the same rights. It is in keeping with the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These words mean as much now as they did at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
That is why Congress must not only repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, but work to ensure full marriage equality for all citizens, together with the privileges and benefits marriage provides. All across this nation, same-sex couples are denied the very rights you and I enjoy. They are denied hospital visitation rights, and they are denied equal rights and benefits in health insurance and pensions, simply because the person they love happens to be of the same sex. Even in states where they have achieved marriage equality, these unjust barriers remain, all because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Unfortunately, too many of us are comfortable sitting on the sidelines while the federal government and state governments trample on the rights of our gay brothers and sisters. As elected officials, we are called to lead. We are called to be a headlight, and not a taillight. So I applaud the work of Congressman Nadler and Senator Feinstein, and I applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee for holding this hearing.
I urge this Committee, the Senate as a body, and the United States Congress as a whole to pass the Respect for Marriage Act as soon as possible. Justice delayed is justice denied, and passing this bill is simply the right thing to do.
More than just our constituents, these are our brothers and sisters. We cannot turn our backs on them. We must join hands and work together to create a more perfect union. We are one people, one family, the American family, and we all live together in this one house, the American House.
Mr. Chairman, I thank you again for inviting me to testify.”