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Rep. Bill Owens signs on to ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ repeal

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Now that gay people can wed in New York, Rep. William L. Owens wants the federal government to recognize the marriages, too.

He has signed on to a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that defines marriage on the federal level as between one man and one woman. The law can complicate gay couples’ Social Security checks and hospital visitations, for example, and its repeal is the next goal for gay rights activists.

“I indicated I would not become a co-sponsor until New York took action,” Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said Tuesday. “Once they did that, I felt I had an obligation to the citizens in the state to make sure they weren’t adversely impeded by federal law.”

New York legalized gay marriage in late June by an act of the Legislature after a frenzied and historic push by some Republican-affiliated lobbyists and a powerful, popular Democratic governor.

In his short career in the House, Mr. Owens has walked a fine line on gay marriage. He calls the right for gays to wed a “civil rights issue,” and says: “I think that people should have the freedom to make those kinds of decisions.”

But in his first campaign, in 2009, he expressed reservations about using the word “marriage.” He has those same doubts today, which is why, when asked, he says only that he’d “lean toward” voting in favor of legalizing gay marriage were he a state legislator in New York.

“To be honest with you, I still have some of those concerns,” he said. “That’s why I said I would have likely voted for it.”

The final law included language that protected religious institutions that do not wish to perform marriages between members of the same sex from lawsuits, though some argued the protection did not go far enough.

Mr. Owens conceded that a repeal of the law defining marriage as between one man and one woman on the federal level has little chance of passage in the House of Representatives, currently controlled by Republicans.

That is not the only avenue for eliminating the law. The courts are now considering the matter, and President Barack Obama’s Justice Department will not defend the law in court.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, too, has filed a lawsuit on the matter, calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. His argument is that the law impedes on a state’s right to regulate marriage, according to Reuters.

That is an argument that Mr. Owens agrees with.

“I feel very strongly that the whole definition of marriage is something that is left up to the states,” Mr. Owens said. “You could have something like New York allowing gay marriage and New Jersey not (allowing it). And I’m perfectly OK with that.”

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