What is the Defense of Marriage Act?

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  • Originally Written By: Jessica Saras
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
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The Defense of Marriage Act, also commonly known as DOMA, is a U.S. federal law that, among other things, defines marriage as between one man and one woman. This definition was intended to be universal in federal dealings and applies to things beyond the logistics of a marriage license, including health and monetary benefits and inheritance claims. In addition, it gives certain powers to the individual states, basically allowing each state’s government to determine its own laws regarding marriage and its benefits. The law was signed into effect in 1996 under President Bill Clinton, but Section 3 — a key section concerning the federal definition of “marriage” and “spouse” — was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The law remains on the books, but is not as powerful or as enforceable without that section.

Overarching Intent

Georgia State Representative Bob Barr was the original author of the Defense of Marriage Act, though it saw many revisions and updates before it was ultimately passed. The law was originally intended to expand states’ rights on the topic of marriage. It achieved this by overriding previous laws that required states to recognize marriages performed outside their borders.


Questions of state reciprocity on the topic of marriage arose most profoundly in 1993, when Hawaii became the first state to recognize same-sex marriages. Lawmakers in many other states were concerned about how Hawaii’s ruling would affect their state’s laws, as many were vehemently opposed to same-sex marriages and did not want their governments to be required to recognize these sorts of unions by default. The DOMA was developed in large part to quell these fears and to prevent mandatory reciprocity.

Passage and Immediate Consequences

After passing through the United States’ House of Representatives with a vote of 342 to 67, DOMA was brought before the Senate, where it passed with a vote of 85 to 14. Both of these votes were landslide majorities. In the aftermath of the passage, several states began enacting constitutional amendments to define marriage in the same terms as the federal government, granting marriages solely to heterosexual couples. In addition, under the Defense of Marriage Act, these same states were no longer required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where homosexual unions were allowed.

Importance of Federal Recognition

A number of states passed laws to recognize same-sex marriages in the months and years following the passage of DOMA. This is a state issue and doesn’t change the fact that, under the terms of the Defense of Marriage Act, only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized by the federal government. In other words, even if a state recognizes the marriage, the federal government does not — meaning partners in a same-sex marriage may not receive the same federal rights that heterosexual couples receive.

For example, according to the terms of the law, same-sex couples are not eligible for spousal Social Security or veterans’ benefits, and they do not qualify for the same tax credits that are available to heterosexual couples. Immigration privileges, inheritance protection, parental rights, and health insurance benefits are also affected by the act. They may have privileges in their home state, but these don’t translate to the national level.

Constitutionality Debate

DOMA has had many critics over the years, perhaps none more powerful than President Obama, who vowed to repeal the law during his 2008 campaign for the presidency. Before that time many lawmakers had attempted to repeal the act, citing the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment as grounds for its reversal.

In 2013 the Supreme Court invalidated section 3 of the Act in the case of U.S. v. Windsor. Section 3 details how the terms “marriage” and “spouse” should be defined — namely, as applicable to a man and a woman in a specifically heterosexual union — on the grounds that the section was unconstitutional. The act is still a part of the United States’ federal law, but many of its original supporters say that it is all but meaningless after the Court’s ruling.


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Post 4

If DOMA is the law passed by the congress, then it should be followed. The President has no right to just decide not to enforce a law passed by the congress. We are supposed to be a nation governed by laws, not by the whims of the President or Attorney General.

Post 3

I am not in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act but I think that and all the talk of gay marriage over the last decade raise some important and tricky questions. Many of the opponents of same sex marriage make outrageous claims about people marrying horses or rocks. And while these are silly arguments they do point to the need to define marriage.

It is nice to think that we can have it be completely open and that anyone who loves anyone can get married. But the world is not that simple and marriage is about more than just love. Joining your life to another has a lot of practical consequences. Would we find it acceptable for a

poly amorous couple to have some kind of three way marriage? That is just one example of the kinds of tricky situations that are certain to rise as we move further into the 21st century. I don't have all the answers but I can anticipate the questions.
Post 2

I have never understood why the idea of protecting marriage involves restricting who has access to it. The same people who talk about the sanctity of marriage and it's primacy in our culture seem to completely misunderstand that this is only special if it is accessible to all of us.

If marriage is simply a privileged of some than it is no different than driving an expensive car or living in a huge house. Marriage becomes a dividing line when it has traditionally been a gesture of love.

Post 1

I think that the Defense of Marriage Act is one of the more unfortunate pieces of legislation to be voted into law over the last several decades. Luckily, I think that we live in a shifting cultural moment. I have heard that much of the opposition to same sex couples comes from older generations and is almost non existent in people under 40.

I want to believe that we live in a culture that is slowly becoming more enlightened and that in twenty or thirty years time same sex couples will have all the rights and privileges that the rest of us enjoy. And on the most fundamental level, don't we want to give people the freedom to love?

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