As the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, the president who signed the bill has already repudiated his own action, marking a journey that mirrors how society has shifted on gay marriage.
In 1996, former President Bill Clinton signed DOMA, the federal law defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Earlier this month, Clinton wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post
denouncing his decision.
Clinton wrote that it was “a very different time” when he signed the bill and said he wanted to head off more “draconian” options, including “a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which would have ended the debate for a generation or more.”
“I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory,” Clinton wrote. “It should be overturned.”
Clinton signed DOMA at 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning in September 1996 after returning from a cross-country trip during his re-election campaign against Republican nominee Bob Dole.
“There were no cameras, no ceremony. The witching-hour timing bespoke both political calculation and personal angst,” The New York Times reported Tuesday. “With his signature, federal law now defined marriage as the union of a man and woman. Mr. Clinton considered it a gay-baiting measure, but was unwilling to risk re-election by vetoing it.”
Clinton, the Times noted, has been troubled by his decision ever since.
“For nearly 17 years since, that middle-of-the-night moment has haunted Mr. Clinton, the source of tension with friends, advisers and gay rights supporters. He tried to explain, defend and justify. He asked for understanding. Then he inched away from it bit by bit,” the Times reported.
Not all gay marriage supporters agree with Clinton’s justification at the time for signing DOMA.
In 1996, “there was no serious prospect that Congress was going to enact a discriminatory constitutional amendment for the first time ever,” Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, told The San Francisco Chronicle. “That threat was not even significantly talked about.”
“I think he’s misremembering the circumstances,” he added.
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