June 16, 2009
A Bad Call on Gay Rights
The Obama administration, which came to office promising to protect gay rights but so far has not done much, actually struck a blow for the other side last week. It submitted a disturbing brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which is the law that protects the right of states to not recognize same-sex marriages and denies same-sex married couples federal benefits. The administration needs a new direction on gay rights.
A gay couple married under California law is challenging the act in federal court. In its brief, the Justice Department argues that the couple lack legal standing to do so. It goes on to contend that even if they have standing, the case should be dismissed on the merits.
The brief insists it is reasonable for states to favor heterosexual marriages because they are the “traditional and universally recognized form of marriage.” In arguing that other states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages under the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, the Justice Department cites decades-old cases ruling that states do not have to recognize marriages between cousins or an uncle and a niece.
These are comparisons that understandably rankle many gay people. In a letter to President Obama on Monday, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, said, “I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings and as families when we read an argument, presented in federal court, implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones.”
The brief also maintains that the Defense of Marriage Act represents a “cautious policy of federal neutrality” — an odd assertion since the law clearly discriminates against gay couples. Under the act, same-sex married couples who pay their taxes are ineligible for the sort of federal benefits — such as Social Security survivors’ payments and joint tax returns — that heterosexual married couples receive.
In the presidential campaign, President Obama declared that he would work to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Now, the administration appears to be defending it out of a sense of obligation to support a validly enacted Congressional law. There is a strong presumption that the Justice Department will defend federal laws, but it is not an inviolable rule.
If the administration does feel compelled to defend the act, it should do so in a less hurtful way. It could have crafted its legal arguments in general terms, as a simple description of where it believes the law now stands. There was no need to resort to specious arguments and inflammatory language to impugn same-sex marriage as an institution.
The best approach of all would have been to make clear, even as it defends the law in court, that it is fighting for gay rights. It should work to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law that bans gay men and lesbians in the military from being open about their sexuality. It should push hard for a federal law banning employment discrimination. It should also work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act in Congress.
The administration has had its hands full with the financial crisis, health care, Guantánamo Bay and other pressing matters. In times like these, issues like repealing the marriage act can seem like a distraction — or a political liability. But busy calendars and political expediency are no excuse for making one group of Americans wait any longer for equal rights.