On September 21, 1996 the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, federally defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. It also allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that were granted legally in other states.

From its enactment to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down the law, DOMA was a significant flash point in the debate surrounding gay marriage in the United States. In light of its 20th anniversary, we decided to take a look back at how DOMA came into existence.

Why was DOMA brought up?

Granting marriage rights to same-sex couples became a hot-button, mainstream political debate in the late 1980s, when the AIDS crisis “brought questions of inheritance and death benefits to many people’s minds,” according to the New York Times.

It became a legal question when in 1993, the Hawaii state supreme court ruled in Baehr v. Miike that the state has to show a “compelling interest” in banning same-sex marriage in order to do so. That decision raised concerns among groups opposed to gay marriage that it could lead to the legalization of same sex marriage in Hawaii and ultimately require other states to recognize those marriages.

As a result, the House Judiciary Committee produced a report in 1996 that suggested that DOMA would prevent the Baehr ruling from enabling gay couples to receive the same federal rights and benefits that are extended to heterosexual couples. The committee wrote that it supported DOMA both to “defend the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage” and to allow states to make their own judgements on the marriage question.


What did the bill do?

The Defense of Marriage Act was introduced on May 7, 1996 to, in the words of the House Judiciary Committee’s report: “reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comport with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.”

DOMA itself contained two major provisions. The first prevented states from being required to provide benefits to couples in same-sex marriages that were granted in other states. The second defined marriage as being only between one man and one woman for the purposes of federal law.

On July 12, 1996 the House passed DOMA on a 342 to 67 vote, and the Senate followed suit on September 10 with a vote of 85 to 14. The legislation had bipartisan support in both chambers. All Republicans except for Rep. Steve Gunderson (an openly gay Congressman from Wisconsin) voted in favor, while Democrats in the House approved it 118 to 65 and Democratic Senators favored it on a 32-to-14 margin (including Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid).

President Bill Clinton called DOMA “unnecessary and divisive,” despite saying that he “remain[ed] opposed to same-sex marriage” and that his view on gay marriage was “not being reviewed or reconsidered.”

But faced with an upcoming election and majorities in both chambers of Congress that were capable of overriding his potential veto, Clinton signed DOMA into law on September 21, 1996. While Clinton refused to hold a signing ceremony or allow himself to be photographed signing the bill, his office released a statement which included the following comment:

“I also want to make clear to all 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.”

What has its impact been?

After DOMA became law, the General Accounting Office identified 1,049 provisions of federal law in 1997 that provided people with “benefits, rights, and privileges” that are either based on or impacted by marital status. By the end of 2003, that number had risen to 1,138 provisions which included things like veterans’ benefits, pensions or survivor benefits, federal employee benefits, and taxes on everything from income to estates.

By 2014, 31 states had enacted DOMA laws of their own (in some cases by amending the state constitution) that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, while the remaining 19 states chose to recognize same-sex marriage.

That led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. v. Windsor, which was brought by a same-sex couple from New York. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer had been married in Canada, but a later court decision in New York led to their marriage being recognized by the state. When Spyer passed away, she left her estate to Windsor, who found she was prohibited from receiving the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses because of DOMA — meaning she owed the IRS $363,053 in estate taxes.

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those by whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”

Two years later, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges struck down state-level Defense of Marriage laws, arguing that they violated the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It was a contentious 5–4 ruling, and Justice Antonin Scalia offered a scathing rebuke of the decision in his dissent. The ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry and receive benefits granted to all married couples.

— Eric Revell

Originally published on Tumblr

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