In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law; now, 17 years later, he says “the law is itself discriminatory.”
Clinton–being Clinton–simultaneously disagrees with and defends his own actions in an op-ed Thursday for the Washington Post. He describes the circumstances of the signing as “a very different time” and implies that he signed it as a tactic to prevent even more draconian anti-gay legislation. “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,” Clinton writes, adding that the bipartisan group of senators who supported DOMA believed 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.”
But Clinton now believes the law is not “consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality and justice above all,” and that it is “incompatible with our Constitution.”
Clinton’s op-ed comes a few weeks before the Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments against DOMA, in addition to a challenge to California’s Prop 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in the state and another high-profile case in the fight for marriage equality.
At the heart of the DOMA challenge is Section 3, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Various lower courts have ruled Section 3 unconstitutional, but a federal overturn could mark a milestone for the LGBT community.
In his op-ed, Clinton describes the harm caused by Section 3—the denial of benefits of more than a thousand federal statutes and programs available to married couples recognized by the federal government—and admits he was wrong to believe DOMA would not be used to discriminate:
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.
The ex-president ends by invoking the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and says that American history has repeatedly shown that “while our laws may at times lag behind our best natures, in the end they catch up to our core values.”
The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on DOMA on March 27. A decision is expected in June.