WASHINGTON -- As one of 18,000 legally wed same-sex couples in California, Brad Levenson and Tony Sears file state income taxes as a married couple.
But they file their federal taxes as single individuals, paying hundreds of dollars more each year. That's because a law called the Defense of Marriage Act bars federal agencies from recognizing gay marriages.
Levenson, a 49-year-old federal public defender in Los Angeles, says that's not fair because he did not choose to be gay.
"I was born the way I am and I don't wish to be discriminated based on some genetic infusion at birth," he said.
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Backers of gay rights are pushing to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. They're buoyed by a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage -- six states have now made it legal -- and changed political realities in Washington: For the first time since DOMA passed in 1996, Democrats are in charge of both the White House and Congress.
"I do think it's a matter of time and I do think the time has come," said Darrick Lawson, 42, a chiropractor from Sacramento who's ready to marry his male partner after they got engaged atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris. "You know, anything that happens progressively happens under the control of the Democratic Party. And that's what we have right now."
Levenson said he cannot enroll Sears, 45, in his federal government health care plan because of DOMA. When Sears needed a root canal and a crown, he paid more than $2,000 because he does not have any dental insurance. Levenson said the dental work would have cost about $1,000 under his insurance plan.
"We'd like to be able to have the same rights as everyone else does, not only in California, but in the rest of the United States," Levenson said. "... People take so many things for granted when they're married."
President Barack Obama has promised to support a repeal, and the idea is gaining plenty of momentum among California Democrats.
In the House, 22 of them -- including Sacramento's Doris Matsui -- are among the 97 co-sponsors of a bill introduced two weeks ago by New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler that would dump DOMA.
Matsui said she shares the "strong conviction and belief in equal rights" of a majority of her constituents. She said more than 86 percent of the 377 calls and letters she has received on the subject have supported a repeal.
"DOMA is a misnamed and unnecessary law that in many ways has restricted the states' ability to govern," Matsui said. "The opportunity to marry and create a family is something sacred to all Americans, and deserving of the utmost respect."
In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- two of only 14 senators to vote against the law 13 years ago -- both oppose DOMA, though neither has introduced legislation to get rid of it.
Boxer said DOMA should be overturned "because it is it is discriminatory, unfair and unconstitutional."
And Feinstein noted how the law is biased in many different ways. In addition to denying gay couples equal tax treatment, she said, DOMA prevents them from receiving any federal employee benefits or from sponsoring a spouse for immigration purposes.
"I think this is the wrong policy and believe that the federal government should treat all married couples equally," Feinstein said.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are ready to fight any attempt to legalize gay marriage.
Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River has introduced a bill that would amend the Constitution to ban gay marriages for good. Lungren's bill, which would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures within seven years, says that marriage "shall consist solely of a legal union of one man and one woman."
And a bill introduced by Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton would deny federal courts the jurisdiction to hear or decide any questions involving the validity of DOMA.
"Marriage between a man and a woman has been the foundation of human civilization for thousands of years all around the world," Burton said. "Protections for this vital institution are built into the culture and laws of our land because of the centrality of the family unit as the procreator of children who represent the future of our society."
He said DOMA was approved because "the vast majority of Americans support upholding this sacred institution, and do not want to see marriage exploited and liberalized to fit any definition."
The White House has sent conflicting signals over what it intends to do.
Just last month, the Obama administration went to court to defend DOMA, even after the president had made it clear that he personally opposed it. Administration officials said the Justice Department had no choice but to defend the law as long as reasonable arguments could be made about its constitutionality, even if the department disagreed with the statute.
Lawson and his 33-year-old fiancee, campaign consultant Dale Howard, were planning to marry in California but changed their plans in November, when voters in the state decided to outlaw gay marriages. Levenson and Sears married in July 2008, when it was still legal to do so.
Lawson said he's happy to be living in a city that's "very progressive and accepting" of gays, but he added: "It doesn't take me 10 miles to get into an area where I'm not accepted and I couldn't be successful in business." He said that he and his partner are in limbo because of DOMA and that they only want to be treated equally with heterosexual couples.
"It basically comes down to being categorized as something less than everyone less," he said. "So it's not special rights, it's just equal rights. I work hard. I own a business. I pay taxes. And I just want to be treated like everyone else. And putting us in a different class, or having legislation against the type of relationship that I have, is frankly insulting."
Levenson said he's looking forward to the day when more of his gay friends can celebrate their legal weddings.
"Denying a whole group of people the right to celebrate their love seems discriminatory," he said.
While a repeal of DOMA still faces an uphill battle, Levenson said gay rights backers shouldn't wait until they've got all the votes lined up to push for it. He's hoping that Obama becomes more aggressive in promoting the issue.
"That's the momentum we need," Levenson said. "It would be right at the top."
California co-sponsors of the bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act:
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Los Angeles
Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista
Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento
Rep. George Miller, D-Concord
Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Los Angeles
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Cerritos
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo
Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, D-Fremont
Rep. Diane Watson, D-Los Angeles
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Santa Rosa
California co-sponsors of a bill to amend the Constitution to make marriage exclusively a legal union of one man and one woman:
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa
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