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For the first time since Congress voted in 1996 to define marriage as between a man and a woman, a congressional committee on Wednesday looked at reversing that action. Two men and a woman who said they have been denied benefits because they’re gay told their stories to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on the subject. Legal experts and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the desegregation era who supports same-sex marriage rights, weighed in, too. The hearing came as advocates for gay rights tried to build on momentum from recent victories. On Monday, the Senate for the first time confirmed as a federal judge a man who is openly gay, J. Paul Oetken for the Southern District of New York, and on July 24, the state of New York is set to begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Legislation filed in the House and Senate would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and require federal recognition of any marriage that is recognized in a state. “DOMA stigmatizes by dividing marriages at the state level into first-class marriages and second-class marriages that the federal government doesn’t like,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry and former director of the marriage project at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. For opponents of same-sex marriage, the Senate hearing was a chance to halt what they called an unacceptable change to the definition of marriage. M. Edward Whelan III, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former official in the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, said that even though family law is generally the domain of the states, there is a place for the federal government. “There’s an understanding that there is some genuine core, some genuine essence to what marriage is, that marriage cannot be defined to mean anything,” Whelan said. Repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, he also said, would mean that taxpayers would be subsidizing same-sex relationships. No date has been set for a vote on the repeal legislation, which faces dimmer prospects in the Republican-controlled House than in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sponsors the Senate version, and it has 27 cosponsors, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). David Ingram can be contacted at [email protected] .

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