With the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 both going before the Supreme Court later this month, we’ve already seen some historic shifts on gay marriage, from the Obama administration’s suggestion that states can’t decide the issue for themselves to prominent Republicans arguing that same-sex marriage promotes family values. Now even the man who signed DOMA into law thinks it should be struck down. In a Washington Post op-ed, Bill Clinton writes that the law contradicts the American values of “freedom, equality and justice above all,” and “I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution.”
This doesn’t represent a change of heart from the former president, but what gay rights activists would say is a long-overdue stand on DOMA. Though he’s avoided saying much on the issue, he’s been on the record as pro–gay marriage for years and was never enthusiastic about the law. As the New York Times notes, Clinton felt his political opponents were trying to push him into taking a stand on gay marriage just a few weeks before his re-election, and signed the bill after midnight to draw less attention to it.
Clinton tries to defend himself in the piece, arguing that it was “a very different time” back in 1996 and he only signed the bill to prevent lawmakers in from doing even more to hurt the cause:
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.
When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.” 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.
In December Times columnist Frank Bruni called on President Clinton to apologize for his role in DOMA, but added that he and other advocates would prefer to see “full membership — and, better yet, leadership — in a movement that’s headed inexorably in the right direction, with or without you.” Nowhere in the op-ed does Clinton apologize for signing the law that has denied same-sex couples “more than a thousand federal statutes and programs available to other married couples,” as he puts it. Whether he begins to lead on the issue remains to be seen, but at the very least his new stance should make things less awkward when
Hillary Clinton whatever Democrat happens to run for president embraces gay marriage in 2016.