On September 21, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a law intending “to define and protect the institution of marriage.” The law, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), received majority votes in both houses of the 104th Congress and contains two short sections detailing the federal government’s stance on the definition of marriage as well as marriage recognition among different states:
No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship. […] In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.
Amidst the heated 2000 election season, the Republican Party endorsed the law, declaring that “…’marriage’ [is] the legal union of one man and one woman, and we believe that federal judges and bureaucrats should not force states to recognize other living arrangements as marriages.” That year, the Democrats did not comment on DOMA, likely out of embarrassment that such a discriminatory bill passed under President Clinton.
In 2004, President George Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. “Marriage,” Bush said, “cannot be severed from its cultural, religious, and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society.” He characterized the Massachusetts and California legislation supporting same-sex marriage as “creating confusion on an issue that requires clarity.” Changing the definition of ‘marriage’ in a few states, Bush argued, “could have serious consequences throughout the country.”
After 16 years of appeals, immigration cases, state referendums, support, regret, and debate, DOMA still feebly reigns supreme, though 6 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation allowing the marriage of same-sex couples since then, beginning with Massachusetts in May 2004.
Thus far, the only “consequences” I’ve seen include all the couples in love that are now able to marry. In my home of Massachusetts, I’ve never thought twice about whether the gay kids at school will eventually get married and raise families; they will, I’m sure of it. Since middle school, I’ve followed the debates that have sprung up over same-sex marriage, from the passing of Prop 8 in California to President Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage. And you could try (and fail) to argue that those are among the “serious consequences” President Bush was talking about. But 50 years from now, any politician who now supports DOMA (if they’re still alive) will be fighting to prove to the public that they never discriminated against gay people, just like Ron Paul tried to tell everyone that he wasn’t a racist back in the day (too soon?).
I’m pretty sure the first person I knew to be gay was my 6th grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Allsbrook. He was originally from North Carolina and had attended UNC; I’ll always remember us making fun of him when he called the ‘grill’ a ‘barbie’. Mr. Allsbrook led our middle school AIDS Walk team every year, and to this day is one of the best teachers I’ve had. He was a pillar of our community back in middle school, and I still remember what he taught us about the world we inhabit. It never occurred to me that Mr. Allsbrook should have more obstacles in life than anyone else. But the more I learned, the more I realized that my favorite 6th grade teacher was being denied basic rights. And, when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage that year, I wasn’t fully aware that, even if Mr. Allsbrook married, his union wouldn’t be recognized by any other state. And that was 8 years ago.
But today, a bit of that changed here in Massachusetts. This morning, a Boston federal appeals court declared DOMA unconstitutional.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley cited a “consequence” of the ruling, but not the kind President Bush had in mind. In a statement, Coakley said, “Today’s landmark ruling makes clear once again that DOMA is a discriminatory law for which there is no justification. It is unconstitutional for the federal government to create a system of first- and second-class marriages, and it does harm to families in Massachusetts every day.”
Some proponents of Section 3 of DOMA (in which a same-sex marriage in one state does not have to be recognized by another state) argue that upholding traditional marriage is a 10th Amendment issue. In the final decision of the three-member panel, Appeals Court Judge Michael Boudin wryly agreed, writing, “…many Americans believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and most Americans live in states where that is the law today. One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage.” Judge Boudin then sent a copy of the decision to Mitt Romney with the postscript: “You should see a doctor cuz you just got BURNED! (Good thing the state of Massachusetts has got you covered on health insurance.)”
Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional according to the Boston federal appeals court. If United States history has anything to prove, it’s that Massachusetts has been the first of many to instigate change in this country. This better be a sign, then, that other states will follow the course that Massachusetts has set out on, and just like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and bans on interracial marriage, DOMA will be a thing of the past. So when Mr. Allsbrook gets married in Massachusetts, he and his husband should be able to move back to North Carolina as a married couple under the law, “consequences” be damned.