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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 30, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 44
Setting the record straight on DOMA
Neither Bernie nor Hillary were as good as they say they were
Section One
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Setting the record straight on DOMA
Neither Bernie nor Hillary were as good as they say they were

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

It's time to set the record straight (yes, pun intended) on DOMA.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have made DOMA - and who is to blame for it - a campaign issue, but neither of them has the history exactly right.

DOMA was passed by huge majorities in both houses of Congress in 1996, as a response to a Hawaiian court ruling that the state could not deny equal protection - and therefore marriage licenses - to same-sex couples.

While marriage equality did not become a reality in Hawaii till 2013, congressional Republicans in 1996 wanted to pass a pre-emptive bill to forbid the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in Hawaii or any other state.

According to Clinton, her husband, then the president, signed DOMA under duress, only to avoid a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Bill Clinton's signing of the bill was a 'defensive action,' Hillary told Rachel Maddow, designed to prevent an even worse bill from being passed.

In fact, such an amendment was not on the table, according to Gay activist Michelangelo Signorile. Signorile quotes from a 2011 interview of Freedom to Marry CEO Evan Wolfson by journalist Chris Geidner: 'That's complete nonsense,' Wolfson told Geidner. 'There was no conversation about something 'worse' until eight years later. There was no talk of a constitutional amendment, and no one even thought it was possible - and, of course, it turned out it wasn't really possible to happen...

'That was never an argument made in the '90s.'

Following Clinton on the Rachel Maddow Show, her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, called her on her rewriting of history but also concealed some of his own baggage on the issue.

True, Sanders, then a Congressman, was one of the small minority who stood up to immense political pressure to vote against DOMA. Only 65 out of 435 Congressmen voted no.

'I have had, in many years in politics, had to make tough votes,' Sanders told Maddow.

'The times then were very, very different&We had a lot of homophobia going on, you know, right-wing Republican leadership clearly trying to push this antigay legislation. And it bothered me to hear Secretary Clinton say, well, you know, DOMA was really about to prevent something even worse. That just wasn't true.'

While Sanders certainly did make a tough but correct vote on DOMA, he was not the heroic champion of equality that his recent remarks suggest. In fact, Sanders opposed DOMA on states' rights grounds, saying that the federal government shouldn't intrude in areas like marriage laws that historically were the prerogative of the states.

Ironically, this argument - which at the time was relatively progressive - was later used by attorney for states seeking to prevent a Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Later, after his home state of Vermont introduced civil unions, Sanders said he supported equal rights for same-sex couples but did not think the state was ready for marriage equality.

'The state was torn in a way that I had never seen the state torn,' Sanders told Maddow about the period after civil unions passed in 2000. 'My view was, give us a little bit of time.'

Sanders, however, later cosponsored bills to repeal DOMA. Clinton was late to the party, not endorsing marriage equality until shortly before the Supreme Court's Windsor decision striking down DOMA in 2013.

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