"These are two military combat soldiers," Cipolla-Dennis said. "Sergeant Donna Johnson was killed in 2012 in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. Her wife Tracy does not get her military benefits. She gets no survivor benefits as a wife as a fallen soldier. They are from North Carolina at Fort Bragg. I went to talk to Tom with another military couple from New York State. The Respect For Marriage Act would entitle them for their marriage to be recognized in the State of North Carolina and in all states."
Cipolla-Dennis noted that the act would not permit a marriage license to be issued in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, but it would provide for benefits to be granted to married couples of any gender combination.
"When I leave New York State to visit Sergeant Johnson's grave I want my marriage respected as well," she said. "I don't want to lose those protections, so I want you to sign the Respect For Marriage Act. We have waited almost a year for you to do this, Tom. Would you please announce today in Tompkins County that you will respond and sign the Respect For Marriage Act, and give this woman's widow her benefits. She needs these benefits, Tom. She is a disabled veteran. She's struggling."
Reed said that he struggles with reconciling equal rights and the issue of same sex marriage, which he does not believe actually is marriage.
"Personally I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. "I am a firm believer in state rights, and if a state chooses to recognize same sex marriage as we have in New York, that we at the federal level have to figure out a way to deal with that. That's where Tracy receiving those benefits needs to be respected at the federal level. I don't know if what you're asking me is limited to that situation or if it's a complete disregard of state rights. That's where we have to continue to have this conversation."
Cipolla-Dennis has been talking to Reed about this issue for a year, both in private communications and meetings and public meetings like the one Saturday. She took the position that there are no new facts and it is time for Reed to declare one way or another whether he will support granting benefits to couples whose marriages are recognized by their states regardless of gender. She said the Defense of Marriage Act does not recognize a particular kind of marriage, but provides equal rights to those who are married.
"It doesn't force anyone to marry," she said. "It just says that if you are married then your protections follow you across this nation, a free nation, Sir. You would not want your wife to follow you on vacation to North Carolina if you knew (if she) had an accident you would not have a legal right to treat your wife. Please don't do that to me and to this couple. This woman needs her survivor benefits. She's entitled to them. This woman lost her life for the freedoms that you are denying her, Sir. Please stop doing that."
But Reed insisted that their real disagreement is about what the act actually says. He said the language in the act may trample state rights, particularly those states who do not recognize same sex marriage.
"I struggle with trying to find the solution to this issue," he said. "You're saying an easy solution is this piece of legislation, and I believe that legislation may go further. That's where we disagree."
Reed asked what he should say if a polygamist comes to his office to ask for the same benefits. There was much derision from the audience at this point, but Reed said that he struggles with where the line should be drawn when extending benefits.
Cipolla-Dennis said she has the right to be married in her church in my state, but blamed 'politicians like you and Jim Seward' for having to leave her church and state to go to another state to be married without her family, friends and pastor.
"The republican party has already faced a lot of opposition because of this issue," she said. "The elders of that party are laughed at. They are making a mockery of the Republican Party and the younger Republicans are tired of it. You have to make a choice: are you going to be a John Boehner or someone else?"
"I'm going to be Tom Reed," Reed rejoined. "I just hope opponents and people who are in the political process are as clear as I have been. If you want to vote against me because I have taken a position, that is fine. I do believe we need to end discrimination. I think that legislation goes too far. It tramples on the states that have exerted their right to say they don't recognize same sex marriage. How do you reconcile that state's action and New York State's action?"
The argument was heated and emotional. In the end neither convinced the other.