Under orders from President Obama, the federal government will no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – the law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. The decision is being hailed as one more victory for lesbian and gay Americans, but the reality is that this is a win for all Americans, including conservatives.
What DOMA did when it was enacted 15 years ago by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Clinton, was to create a law that legally discriminated against a group of citizens. The law not only defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman, but it prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and it permitted states to not recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Legislating discrimination against one group of Americans is bad policy for all Americans.
Jump ahead 15 years since the passage of DOMA and five states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. Yet those couples, legally married in their home state or Washington, D.C., do not enjoy the same rights as legally married heterosexual couples in the United States do. A married gay couple from Iowa, for example, has no legal standing in Minnesota.
A legal marriage in one state has always been recognized in other states. Recognizing gay marriage does not diminish heterosexual marriage; it enforces it by establishing that the institution of marriage is protected for all Americans. It should not be tinkered with based on current political winds.
Similarly, our government should never cherry-pick which rights and privileges are awarded to which citizens. Under DOMA, gay couples legally married in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia, are not entitled to over 1,000 federal benefits that married heterosexual couples have. Legally married gay couples can’t file joint federal tax returns, collect survivor benefits from Social Security or avoid estate taxes when a gay spouse dies.
As a country, do we really want separate and unequal laws for different citizens? And if we do – if we allow discriminatory legislation like DOMA to stand – what will prevent some future generation from passing legislation that might discriminate against other groups of people?
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” wrote: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” DOMA is an unjust law. It was time for our government to stop defending it.