FACT CHECK:   Have Democrats proposed legislation that would “ban” use of the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’?

Claim:   Democrats have proposed legislation that would “ban” use of the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’   FALSE

Origins:    Inevitably these days, whenever some social change results in the lessened use of something previously familiar or ubiquitous, detractors charge that the object in question has been “banned.” For example, when a racially-motivated shooting at Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church left nine people dead in June 2015, that tragedy rekindled a debate over the display of the Confederate flag which prompted several prominent retailers to discontinue selling Confederate flag merchandise — producing claims that such merchandise had been “banned” (along with television shows and social media posts that featured it).

So it was with the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, which saw in its wake the publication of articles with hyperbolic and misleading clickbait headlines such as “Dems Propose Legislation That Would Ban Words ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’:

But of course, nobody in government is actually proposing that the words “husband” and “wife” be banned, or that their future use be limited or restricted in some way. Such claims stem from a bill HR 2976 (also known as the “Amend the Code for Marriage Equality Act of 2015”), which was introduced by Rep. Lois Capps of California and seeks to modify sections of the U.S. Code to update language that uses gender-specific terms (e.g., “he,” “she,” “husband,” “wife”) and replace it with gender-neutral references. These changes (which have already been enacted on the state level in places such as California) would both bring older sections of the code up to date to reflect changing conditions and eliminate potential ambiguities in federal law following from the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision:

In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and that states have an obligation to perform same-sex marriages, Rep. Lois Capps introduced a bill to ensure that the United States Code reflects the equality of all marriages.

The Amend the Code for Marriage Equality Act of 2015 would strike the use of gendered terms such as “husband” and “wife” from the federal code and replace them with more gender-neutral terms, such as “spouse” or “married couple.”

The proposed legislation would not only ensure that the code reflects marriage equality, but it could also make several positive changes to the U.S. Code by removing areas of gender discrimination written into federal law.

Some of the changes proposed in Rep. Capps’ bill are intended to update current terminology in the federal code and avoid instances where improper wording could generate loopholes or make certain laws unconstitutional under the new precedent set by the Supreme Court. For example, a section of the U.S. Code dealing with Family and Medical Leave addresses circumstances in which a “husband and wife” work for the same employer or are both members of the armed services. Replacing that phrase with the term “married couple” would ensure that the law was not interpreted to exclude same-sex couples.

Other sections of the U.S. Code targeted by the bill simply need updating to reflect modern realities in ways that have nothing to do with same-sex marriage. For example, Federal law currently makes it a crime to threaten “the wife of a former President during his lifetime” or “the widow of a former President until her death or remarriage,” wording that makes no allowance for the possibility that a married woman might become U.S. President. Another section of the U.S. Code dealing with the payment of compensation for the disability or death of persons employed at U.S. military facilities situated outside the U.S. limits such payment to “surviving wife and child or children,” language that doesn’t accommodate the circumstance of a married woman’s being employed at an air or naval base.

HR 2976 was introduced to the House on 8 July 2015 and to date has 26 cosponsors (all of them Democrats). No action has yet been taken on the bill.

Last updated:      12 July 2015

Originally published:   12 July 2015

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