Overview of the Defense of Marriage Act

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Throughout history, the idea of same sex marriages has been highly controversial. Though same sex relationships have become more liberally accepted, LGBT+ couples have and still do face many obstacles to achieve the same rights as heterosexual couples, specifically when it comes to marriage rights. Under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, marriage rights for couples who are gay were hindered; causing much debate on the morality and constitutionality of the law. In this essay I will discuss the origins of DOMA, provisions of the law, social context surrounding it, and its outcomes.

Throughout early history, same sex relationships were hardly spoken of as most homosexual couples hid their relationships to avoid the social stigma and harassment surrounded by their lifestyle. The beginning of the modern-day gay rights movement is marked at the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. This three-night long violent riot was substantial because it was the first collaborative protest against the ongoing oppression faced by the gay community. (Long-Droppert, 2015). Though the Stonewall riots was a pivotal moment embarking the movement to achieve equal rights among all sexualities, it created an explosion of opposing viewpoints and hostility for years to come from opposers of same sex relationships as activists started to adopt the philosophy of minority rights, public protests became a norm, and shameful attitudes turned into celebrations embracing their sexuality. (Hall, 2010). With the growing openly gay population, there was also growth of foundations and groups to offer support to those part of the gay community. Opposers saw this progression as a threat and immediately began to fight back. People who were gay were being arrested, harassed, turned away from hospitality and services, and many lives were taken by those who viewed the gay community as wrong and went against their religious or political beliefs. (Hall, 2010).

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The constant aggression did not stop the gay community from fighting for the rights they knew they deserved. After years of being shunned, the gay community began to see acceptance and respect among those outside of the LGBT+ community. In 1992, the District of Columbia passed a law to allow same sex relationships to register as domestic partners however, same sex marriage was still inaccessible. (Klarman, 2013). The year following, the highest court in Hawaii reigned that a ban on same sex marriage may go against the state’s constitution. State voters and federal lawmakers disagreed with this ruling and laws to act against same sex marriages were proposed posing a huge drawback anyone part of the LGBT community as it would infringe upon achieving equal marriage rights that they had fought to gain for so long. (Klarman, 2013).

Historical Context

Following Hawaii’s ruling, many national conservative Christian groups began a nationwide legislative campaign, the National Campaign to Protect Marriage, to ban the recognition of same sex marriage. At this time, the US was under the presidency of Bill Clinton who, despite being considered LGBT-friendly, sought to appeal to religious conservatives by following the religious views on marriage which deemed it to be the sacred bond between male and female or husband and wife. (Haider-Markel, 2018).

In attempt to define and protect the institution of marriage, a bill for the Defense of Marriage Act (H.R. 3396) was introduced to the 104th Congress on May 7, 1996 by republican Representative Bob Barr. Though Barr was the proposed bills major sponsor, the bill had 117 cosponsors as supporters of H.R. 3396. (Manz, 2013). The following day, the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution whose jurisdiction is to enforce and protect constitutional, civil, and basic human rights. On May 30th the subcommittee held a session and voted to send it to the full committee by an 8-4 vote. (Harvard Law Review, 2004). During the full committee consideration session held on June 12th, the bill was ordered to be reported by a 20-10 vote and the bill was sent to be voted on by the House. On July 12, 1996, after much debate, the bill was passed by the House by a 342-67 vote and was sent to the Senate. Once received, DOMA was passed by the Senate without any amendment on September 10th by an 85-14 vote. Just in time to be presented to the president before the end of the 104th congress. (Harvard Law Review, 2004).

Once the bill was passed by both houses; it was equipped to be brought to the White House. On September 20th, just ten days after being passed by the Senate, DOMA was presented to President Clinton. (Manz, 2013). President Clinton immediately acted on the proposed bill and signed the enact it the very next day, September 21, 1996. The Defense of Marriage Act officially became Public Law No:104-199 which stripped same sex couples of marriage rights and the federal benefits that coincide with marriages.


  • Official Title to define and protect the institution of marriage
  • Chapter 115, Title 28, US Code amended protecting state rights to decide to recognize same sex marriages
  • Chapter1, Title 1, amended defining marriage as the legal union between man and woman
  • Provision of Family and Medical Leave Act defines “spouse” as only husband and wife

The Defense of Marriage Act was intended to define and protect the institution of marriage. (PL 104-199, 1996). Under section 2 this act, Chapter 115 of title 28, United States Code is amended to protect individual state rights to decide whether or not to recognize same sex relationships or marriages formed under other state laws. Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act also amends chapter 1 of title 1 of the US Code by clearly defining marriage as only the legal union of man and woman and clearly defines ‘spouse’ as a person of the opposite sex that is either a husband or wife. (PL 104-199, 1996). These provisions subsequently stripped same sex marriages recognized under state law from receiving federal marital benefits. (Haider-Markel, 2018).


As previously discussed, there were many groups who opposed the idea of same sex marriage and favored DOMA because it defined marriage in the most ‘traditional’ terms. Although there are few democratic supporters of the law, most supporters were republicans with very conservative ideology. This is apparent when considering the sponsors of DOMA. The main sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act, Bob Barr, was part of the republican party and held strong conservative viewpoints. Even the cosponsors of DOMA which was composed of 106 republican and only 11 democrats shared the same conservative values when it came to marriage. (Manz, 2013).

Outside of political parties and viewpoints, religion, specifically Christianity, was another determining factor in supporting DOMA. Biblically, marriage refers to the lifelong union between a man and a woman which is instituted and ordained by God as the permanent relationship between one man as husband, and one woman as wife. (Kostenberger, 2010). Under this divine ideal of marriage, homosexuality was one of the sins among six that affect marriage. Because homosexuality violates God’s intended creation purposes of man and woman to procreate, and his will for marriage to be between husband and wife, those who followed Christianity very much were attracted to DOMA’s traditional marriage values. (Kostenberger, 2010).


In 1996, after DOMAs enactment, 26 US state held statutory ban on same sex marriages. The remaining states neither had legalized nor banned same sex marriage. (Liu, 2018). The following year, all but 16 states imposed bans on gay marriage. During this same year, Hawaii went against the ban norm and became the first state to offer domestic partnership benefits to same sex relationships. In 1998, states took another step away from achieving same sex marriage rights as Hawaii legislature imposed a statutory ban on same sex marriage and Alaska went as far as to approve a constitutional amendment that banned same sex marriage. As the years went on, many states followed suit and the US began to see more and more states imposing bans on same sex marriages. That is until 2003 when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same sex couples would be granted the right to wed; becoming the first state in the country to permit same sex marriage. (Liu, 2018).

Massachusetts remained the only state to allow same sex marriage until 2008 when Connecticut decided to follow suit and legalize same sex marriage. (Liu,2018). This was a turning point in the US as we began to see more states approve the right for same sex couples to wed over the next few years. In 2009, New Hampshire, Iowa, Vermont, and the District of Columbia all signed bills legalizing same sex marriage. By 2012, nin states legalized same sex marriage, and President Obama publicized his support for same sex marriage raising many questions as to what would happen to the Defense of Marriage Act under his presidency. (Haider-Markel, 2018).

In 2013, after states coming forward with concern that DOMA interfered with basic constitutional rights, the Supreme Court deemed parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional thus requiring the federal government to recognize same sex marriages from states where it was legal. (Liu,2018). Two years following, on June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled all bans on gay marriage unconstitutional making same sex marriage permitted in all 50 states thus making the Defense of Marriage Act futile and marking a huge victory for the LGBT community. (Liu,2018).

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Overview of the Defense of Marriage Act. (2021, Mar 25). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/overview-of-the-defense-of-marriage-act/