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Senate Democrats Leap Into the Debate Over Gay Rights

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

After President Barack Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage, several Senate Democrats have begun urging action on other gay rights issues.

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and 16 other Senate Democrats today wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, renewing their request to hold green card applications in abeyance for binational gay couples while the Defense of Marriage Act is being challenged in the courts and legislation is pending in Congress to overturn it.

The move would allow married binational gay and lesbian couples to remain together in the United States without forcing the foreign spouse to run afoul of immigration law. Nine states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow gay marriage, according to the group Freedom to Marry.

“We write to you to reiterate our request that the Administration provide relief for lesbian and gay families in which one spouse is not a U.S. citizen during this time of legal uncertainty,” the letter said.

The letter also noted that the request comes as “marriage equality rights are being extended to more and more citizens of this country.”

Kerry has a constituent in a same-sex marriage that faces deportation to Pakistan. He wrote a letter on her behalf in March to DHS, according to the Salem News.

Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004, but according to DOMA, enacted in 1996, the federal government cannot recognize such marriages and therefore cannot approve green card petitions for same-sex couples. The law defines marriage as between one man and one woman and says states do not have to recognize gay marriages authorized by other states.

Last year, Obama announced the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA against court cases that question its constitutionality.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also sought to capitalize on the momentum when he announced today that the committee would hold a hearing in June to examine employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. The hearing also will deal with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“Every American deserves an equal opportunity to earn a good living, judged by their talent, ability and qualifications, free from discrimination,” Harkin said in the announcement. “Workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is reprehensible and has no place in our nation.”

“I am hopeful that, working together, we will reach a point where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons enjoy the same rights and protections, and full equality, as all our fellow Americans,” Harkin continued.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) today also indicated that he would vote for a gay marriage ballot measure, should it come up in Nevada.

“I would follow my grandchildren and my children,” Reid said at a press conference today.

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