Congress Evolves on DOMA, Same-Sex Marriage

"Homosexuality is immoral ... based on perversion," a lawmaker said in 1996.

ByABC News
December 5, 2012, 4:12 PM

Dec. 6, 2012 -- When a Republican congressman took to the House floor in 1996 to talk about same-sex marriage, he did not mince words.

"The very foundations of our society are in danger of being burned," Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia told his colleagues. "The flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality are licking at the very foundation of our society: the family unit."

Barr was speaking in support of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman that would soon pass with strong majorities in both the House and the Senate. It would be signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Sixteen years later, while supporters of DOMA exist in force, much has changed in the world of LGBT rights, in general, and marriage, in particular.

"Nineteen-ninety-six was a very different world," says Janson Wu, a staff attorney for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). "The legislative record reflects colorful and insensitive language by some congressmen, but it was more common in 1996 for gay couples to be treated differently."

Back then, about 31 percent of the country supported same-sex marriage, and not one state allowed it. Today, 51 percent of Americans support it, and it's legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. The law is being challenged in federal court by gay and lesbian couples who are legally married in their states but are denied federal benefits available to opposite-sex couples. Two federal appeals courts have struck down a key section of DOMA, and the Supreme Court is considering whether to review those lower court decisions.


The debate surrounding DOMA was triggered when Hawaii appeared to be on the verge of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was only months before the 1996 presidential election between President Bill Clinton and Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., believed politics was at play.

"The bill before us is called the Defense of Marriage Act, but a more accurate title would be the Defense of Intolerance Act," Kennedy said at a Senate Judiciary hearing in July 1996.

Kennedy questioned the urgency of the legislation and said he regarded it as a "thinly disguised example of intolerance."

Much of the debate focused the section of the law that provides that states shall not be required to recognize same-sex marriage licenses issued by other states. Congress also debated another section, which the Supreme Court is currently considering, that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

In 1996, Rep. Don Nickles, R-Okla., a co-sponsor of DOMA, said such a definition was based on "common understandings rooted in our nation's history."

He noted that the definition applies to federal law only and that DOMA doesn't affect the ability of the states to define marriage as they choose.

"This bill will help the federal government defend the traditional and common-sense definitions of American people," Nickles said at the same hearing.

On the Senate floor, then Majority Leader Trent Lott, R- Miss., said the legislation was not "prejudiced."

"It is not mean-spirited or exclusionary," he stressed. "The Defense of Marriage Act is not an attack upon anyone. It is, rather, a response to an attack upon the institution of marriage itself."