U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

U.S. president Bill Clinton signed into law an act that defines marriage as “the legal union between one man and one woman” and that denies federal benefits to same-gender married couples. The law asserts that although no state is required to recognize same-gender marriages conducted in other states, the law does not keep states from recognizing those same marriages if they choose to do so.

Summary of Event

Motivated by concerns over same-gender marriage litigation in Hawaii, the 104th Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) during the summer and fall of 1996. The law defines “marriage” as the union between a man and a woman, prevents same-gender couples legally married in a given state from receiving federal benefits, and allows states to refuse to recognize same-gender marriages from other states. Although the necessity and constitutionality of DOMA have been questioned, the bill may be the most important piece of national legislation to date affecting the lives of gays and lesbians. [kw]U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act (Sept. 21, 1996) [kw]President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. (Sept. 21, 1996) [kw]Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. President (Sept. 21, 1996) [kw]Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. President Clinton Signs (Sept. 21, 1996) [kw]Marriage Act, U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of (Sept. 21, 1996) Defense of Marriage Act (1996) Same-gender marriage[same gender marriage];Defense of Marriage Act Marriage;U.S. legislation on[US legislation] Civil rights;United States [c]Civil rights;Sept. 21, 1996: U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act[2460] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 21, 1996: U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act[2460] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 21, 1996: U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act[2460] [c]Religion;Sept. 21, 1996: U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act[2460] Barr, Robert Sheldon, Lou Clinton, Bill

The salience of same-gender marriage has increased considerably since the Hawaii Supreme Court opened the door to its legal recognition in 1993, but as a political issue, same-gender marriage is nothing new. For lesbian and gay civil rights advocates in particular, the issue has been part of the political agenda since the early 1970’s. In 1993, however, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in Baehr v. Lewin (renamed Baehr v. Miike) Baehr v. Miike (1991, 1993)[Baehr v Miike] that the state’s denial of marriage licenses to same-gender couples amounted to gender discrimination and was unconstitutional under the Hawaii constitution. The ruling ignited both hope and fear that same-gender marriages might become legal in Hawaii and that other states might be forced to recognize these marriages.

By late 1995 and early 1996, a broad coalition of national conservative Christian Christian Right;and same-gender marriage[same gender marriage] groups, including the American Family Association, American Family Association;and Defense of Marriage Act[Defense of Marriage Act] the Christian Coalition, Christian Coalition Concerned Women of America, Concerned Women of America the Eagle Forum, Eagle Forum the Family Research Council, Family Research Council Focus on the Family, Focus on the Family and the Traditional Values Coalition, Traditional Values Coalition began a nationwide legislative campaign to ban the recognition of same-gender marriages. In January, 1996, the main arm of the coalition, the National Campaign to Protect Marriage Marriage, National Campaign to Protect (NCPM) formed during meetings of Christian Right groups in Memphis, Tennessee. The NCPM helped to distribute a video called The Ultimate Target of the Gay Agenda: Same Sex Marriages Ultimate Target of the Gay Agenda: Same Sex Marriages, The (videotape) to national and state legislators. The NCPM officially kicked-off its campaign at a February 10, 1996, rally in Des Moines, Iowa, with a display of a “marriage protection resolution,” endorsed by all of the 1996 Republican presidential candidates. The campaign was so successful that by March, 1998, all but two states had considered legislation banning the recognition of same-gender marriages, twenty-eight had adopted such bans, and the federal government had adopted DOMA.

DOMA (H.R. 3396) outlines the denial of federal benefits to same-gender married couples and allows individual states to deny the recognition of such marriages conducted in other states. H.R. 3396 had 105 Republican and 12 Democratic cosponsors. The U.S. Senate companion bill was S.R. 1740, sponsored by Republican senator Don Nickles Nickles, Don of Oklahoma and twenty-four cosponsors. H.R. 3396 was drafted by Representative Robert Barr, Barr, Robert a Republican from Georgia, with the help of Reverend Lou Sheldon Sheldon, Lou of the Traditional Values Coalition, Traditional Values Coalition as part of a Republican package of “family values” "Family values"[family values];and Defense of Marriage Act[Defense of Marriage Act] legislation. Barr argued that proponents of same-gender marriage wanted “to throw open the doors of the U.S. Treasury…to be raided by the homosexual movement.” Out gay representative Barney Frank, Frank, Barney a Democrat from Massachusetts, failed in his attempt to amend the bill—after a vote of 103-311—and therefore limit its scope. With the support of out gay representative Steve Gunderson, Gunderson, Steve a Republican from Wisconsin, a California Democrat tried to amend the bill with language that would have required the General Accounting Office to study the differences and the benefits, rights, and privileges available to persons in a marriage versus those persons in a domestic partnership. This amendment failed as well, and the bill passed 342-67, with some Democrats (65), one independent (Bernard Sanders of Vermont), and one Republican (Gunderson) opposing the measure.

House hearings on DOMA contained arguments on morality, civil rights, and gay and lesbian families. For example, Republican representative James Sensenbrenner Sensenbrenner, James of Wisconsin argued that “one of the problems our society faces today is the erosion of the family and the erosion of the marriage because the marriage is the bond that keeps the family together, and that’s why I strongly support this legislation.” Meanwhile, gay activist and writer Andrew Sullivan Sullivan, Andrew argued against DOMA, countering that allowing same-gender marriage would “promote stability, responsibility, the disciplines of family life among people.”

DOMA hearings in the Senate also revolved around the notion of a “normal” family and deciding if that definition could be expanded. The hearings included testimony from religious conservatives and gay and lesbian activists, including the president of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). PFLAG

House and Senate floor debate on DOMA mirrored the committee testimony. In referring to DOMA, Representative Steve Largent, Largent, Steve a Republican from Oklahoma, argued that there “is absolutely nothing that we can do that is more important than protecting our families and protecting the institution of marriage.” House Democrats who opposed the bill chose not to argue their point in terms of the legitimacy of gay and lesbian families, but argued instead that DOMA was unconstitutional and was a political maneuver designed to coincide with a presidential election year. However, Gunderson did argue that Congress should consider adopting a national domestic-partnership law for gay and lesbian couples. Finally, perhaps the most dramatic episode of the Senate debate was when Senator Robert Byrd, Byrd, Robert a Democrat from West Virginia, held up his family Bible to support the legislation and his definition of the American family.

Although President Clinton has been called the most GLBT-friendly U.S. president ever, he chose to sign DOMA late on a Saturday night (September 21, 1996), making the legislation law (Public Law No: 104-199). The oldest national GLBT rights group in the United States, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, responded harshly.


Although Congress grew more conservative following the passage of DOMA, GLBT activists have gained some legislative victories. For example, efforts by conservatives to overturn Clinton’s 1998 ban on sexual-orientation discrimination for federal civilian employees were defeated, and Republican efforts to pass legislation prohibiting unmarried couples from jointly adopting children in the District of Columbia were blocked in 1998. Although GLBT activists were deeply upset and even confused by Clinton’s signing of DOMA, he still is viewed in a positive light by many in the GLBT community.

With or without the passage of DOMA, the debate over same-gender marriage grew far more intense in 2003 and 2004. As the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws and Canadian provinces upheld same-gender marriages in the summer of 2003, calls increased for a constitutional amendment to ban same-gender marriage. Barr, however, said he was opposed to the federal-level amendment because it would be unnecessary, that the issue of same-gender marriage is an issue the states should handle.

In November, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-gender marriage in that state, setting off a new round of federal and state activity on the issue, including a failed attempt in the U.S. Senate in July, 2004, to pass a constitutional ban. The Senate was scheduled to debate and vote again in June, 2006, on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a woman and a man.

In August of 2004, DOMA was upheld as constitutional for the first time by a federal court. At the same time, the House of Representatives had been considering the Marriage Protection Act (or Amendment), which would invoke a provision of DOMA to strip federal courts of their jurisdiction to rule on challenges to state bans on same-gender marriages. On November 29, 2004, however, the Supreme Court refused to overturn same-gender marriage rights in Massachusetts. Clearly, the passage of DOMA did not settle the same-gender marriage debate. Defense of Marriage Act (1996) Same-gender marriage[same gender marriage];Defense of Marriage Act Marriage;U.S. legislation on[US legislation] Civil rights;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gross, Larry, and James D. Woods. The Columbia Reader on Lesbians & Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haider-Markel, Donald P. “Defense, Morality, Civil Rights, and Family: The Evolution of Lesbian and Gay Issues in the U.S. Congress.” In Queer Families, Queer Politics: Challenging Culture and the State, edited by Mary Bernstein and Renate Reimann. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Policy Diffusion as a Geographical Expansion of the Scope of Political Conflict: Same-Sex Marriage Bans in the 1990’s.” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 1, no. 1 (2001): 5-26.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kotulski, Davina. Why You Should Give a Damn About Gay Marriage. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rayside, David Morton. On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rimmerman, Craig A., Kenneth D. Wald, and Clyde Wilcox, eds. The Politics of Gay Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Same-Sex Marriage: A Selective Bibliography of the Legal Literature.” Law Library, Rutgers School of Law. http://law-library.rutgers.edu/SSM.html.

1981: Gay and Lesbian Palimony Suits Emerge

1993-1996: Hawaii Opens Door to Same-Gender Marriages

August 6, 1994: Japanese American Citizens League Supports Same-Gender Marriage

December 20, 1999: Baker v. Vermont Leads to Recognition of Same-Gender Civil Unions

February 21, 2003: Australian Court Validates Transsexual Marriage

April, 2003: Buenos Aires Recognizes Same-Gender Civil Unions

June 17, 2003, and July 19, 2005: Canada Legalizes Same-Gender Marriage

November 18, 2003: Massachusetts Court Rules for Same-Gender Marriage

November 18, 2004: United Kingdom Legalizes Same-Gender Civil Partnerships

April 4, 2005: United Kingdom’s Gender Recognition Act Legalizes Transsexual Marriage

Categories: History