Former President Bill Clinton took his biggest step yet in distancing himself from the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that bears his signature, writing in today's Washington Post that the Supreme Court should strike down DOMA.
"On March 27, DOMA will come before the Supreme Court, and the justices must decide whether it is consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality and justice above all, and is therefore constitutional," Clinton writes. "As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution."
Clinton's 623-word column is his most direct admonishment of DOMA since he signed the discriminatory ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriage into law shortly after midnight, Sept. 21, 1996.
As Clinton writes in his column today, those were "very different times." It was not popular to oppose DOMA in 1996. Congress approved the bill overwhelmingly with only 14 Democrats voting against the bill in the Senate. Although the act was largely meaningless at first, that changed as the fight for marriage equality expanded. When Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, those couples were denied more than 1,000 benefits enjoyed by married straight couples because of DOMA.
In a statement released one day before signing DOMA into law, Clinton hinted at his qualms with the bill and avowed his opposition to discrimination.
"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," Clinton said.
Noting that statement in his column today, Clinton writes, "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."
"He knew it then of course too," responded Andrew Sullivan in a blog post last night. "But it's churlish to cavil. If we can forgive Ken Mehlman, we can surely forgive Bill Clinton. And welcome him to the civil rights cause of our time."
While Clinton's column has already been praised by advocates, including Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin and Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson, the question remains as to whether it is too little too late. Indeed, Clinton's brief explanation as to why he signed DOMA — "Although that was only 17 years ago, it was a very different time." — will no doubt continue to irk some who believe the former president has never fully taken responsibility for his role in DOMA's history.
Although Clinton has disavowed DOMA before and expressed his support for marriage equality, some have questioned why the former president and pillar of the modern Democratic Party has been "seemingly in the wings." Clinton made no mention of DOMA in his thousand-page memoir, My Life, as Frank Rich noted in New York magazine in February 2012.
"Where's your apology for signing the Defense of Marriage Act?" asked New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in an open letter to Clinton published in December.
In a piece published today by The New Yorker, Richard Socarides, who advised Clinton on gay and lesbian civil rights issues when DOMA was signed, cites a Clinton associate who says Clinton's decision to write the column was his own and he did so longhand on a legal pad.
Although the column is not an apology, according to Socarides, it is still a remarkable step by a former president to urge the nation's highest court to strike down a law that bears his signature.
"It's all a matter of perspective," Socarides wrote in an email to Metro Weekly. "Some will focus on the positive impact his efforts now will have; others will focus on the damage done."
Today's column also places a focus on Hillary Clinton, who remains silent from the discussion of marriage equality. Hillary Clinton was serving as secretary of state — a post in which domestic policy is traditionally not discussed — when the Obama administration stopped defending DOMA in court and top administration members, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, announced their support for marriage equality. Clinton's last day as secretary of state was Feb. 1.
Read Bill Clinton's Washington Post column here.
[Photo: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).]