In a move eagerly anticipated by gay rights advocates since his election in 2008, President Obama has ordered the Justice Department to cease its defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)–bringing federal marriage equality one step closer to reality.
The 1996 act defines marriage as a legal union between a man and woman and allows the federal government to deny recognition to same-sex marriages performed in states where the unions are legal. That means legally married same-sex couples are denied the federal benefits afforded to heterosexual married couples, such as Social Security death benefits and veteran benefits. In directing the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA, constitutional challenges to the law can be brought to court with a hope of succeeding.
The Justice Department and the president have taken the position on behalf of the United States government that discrimination against gay and lesbian people in all cases is presumptively unconstitutional.
It’s the first time the United States government has ever embraced that position, and if the courts agree it will help to eradicate all of the various forms of discrimination that gay and lesbian people suffer around the country.
In another victory for queer couples, same-sex civil unions will soon be allowed in Hawaii. The civil union bill was successful in the state senate today and the governor has vowed to sign it.
The state’s relationship with gay civil unions has been tumultuous; in July, a similar bill nearly passed but was vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle. Today, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said, “For me, this bill represents equal rights for all the people of Hawaii.”
Though gay rights groups applaud Hawaii’s decision, they will continue to push for full marriage equality in that state.
Says Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry:
Loving and committed same-sex couples have the freedom to marry in 12 countries on four continents–as well as in five states and the District of Columbia here at home–and the sky has not fallen and the sun continues to rise every morning.
While a welcome step, civil union is no substitute for the full measure of respect, clarity, security, responsibilities and protection of marriage itself. States that have created civil union as a means of both giving and withholding–providing legal protections while withholding the freedom to marry and all its meaning–have found that civil union falls far short of marriage with all its tangible and intangible significance in our lives.
Clearly gay rights are taking precedence at the federal level. Last year, a repeal of DADT. This year, an end to DOMA. Upwards, toward an end to discrimination!