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Former President Clinton asks Supreme Court to strike down DOMA

DOMA trials Marriage equality Marriage Equality Trials Windsor

By Scottie Thomaston

Attribution: Wikimedia Commons
Former President Bill Clinton

In 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, he issued a statement that the law “has no effect on any current federal, state or local anti-discrimination law and does not constrain the right of Congress or any state or locality to enact anti-discrimination laws” and that “the enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination, violence or intimidation against any person on the basis of sexual orientation.” His administration called the law “gay baiting,” but he nonetheless signed DOMA into law.

Yesterday, Clinton wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post calling on the Supreme Court to strike down Section 3 of DOMA when it decides United States v. Windsor this year.

The piece says:

In 1996, I signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although that was only 17 years ago, it was a very different time. In no state in the union was same-sex marriage recognized, much less available as a legal right, but some were moving in that direction. Washington, as a result, was swirling with all manner of possible responses, some quite draconian. As a bipartisan group of former senators stated in their March 1 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, many supporters of the bill known as DOMA believed that its passage “would defuse a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which would have ended the debate for a generation or more.” It was under these circumstances that DOMA came to my desk, opposed by only 81 of the 535 members of Congress.

Of the statement his administration issued after signing DOMA, he now says:

Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.

And this country is changing rapidly, moving swiftly toward equality for gays and lesbians:

We are still a young country, and many of our landmark civil rights decisions are fresh enough that the voices of their champions still echo, even as the world that preceded them becomes less and less familiar. We have yet to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, but a society that denied women the vote would seem to us now not unusual or old-fashioned but alien. I believe that in 2013 DOMA and opposition to marriage equality are vestiges of just such an unfamiliar society.

Former President Clinton joins the Obama administration, hundreds of companies, hundreds of Congresspeople (including 21 Senators who voted for the law but eventually opposed it), government watchdog groups, former FEC officials, former Solicitors General from Republican and Democratic administrations, and others who oppose DOMA and bans on same-sex marriage.

Richard Socarides, former White House Special Assistant and Senior Advisor under Clinton writes in the New Yorker about former President Clinton’s change of heart:

The essay, a Clinton associate told me, was Clinton’s own idea; he wrote it out himself in longhand on a legal pad. As his former White House adviser on gay-rights, I was not surprised by the message. But Clinton’s willingness, just twenty days before two gay-rights cases go to the Supreme Court, to publicly call DOMA discriminatory is a big step, even if his comments stopped short of the full apology some have asked for.

But the op-ed leaves a political mystery intact. Clinton, though clearly unhappy with the law today, does not really explain why he signed it, other than to say “it was a very different time.” Perhaps that is explanation enough. Still, how was it that Bill Clinton, the first President to champion gay rights, put his name on one of the most discriminatory anti-gay statutes in American history?

Socarides asks:

What are the lessons of the Defense of Marriage Act? Perhaps the clearest one is that if you compromise on principle, on the assumption that the world will never catch up with your ideals, you will likely come to regret it. Marriage equality was not some completely far-off vision; it was something that could be achieved. Clinton never believed that the federal government had the right to discriminate. The harder question is this: When is winning the most important thing? Would a veto, in retrospect, have been worth the risk?

The Supreme Court takes up the issue of same-sex marriage on March 26-27, the first time in history the Court will hear arguments on the questions of state and federal laws restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. A ruling is expected in both cases in late June.

1 Comment

  • 1. cure for snoring  |  December 24, 2013 at 12:06 am

    All citizens have their own rights to live in the way they want or their body demands without hurting the feelings of the other person. Now people became more liberal to admit such bitter truths and consider such category of people also as humans.

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