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  • Sasha Issenberg

September 21, 1996: Bill Clinton signs Defense of Marriage Act

defense of marriage act
Defense of Marriage Act, as signed

ON THIS DAY IN 1996...

President Bill Clinton made the Defense of Marriage Act law, with a late-night signing that left questions about his motives.

From the moment the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbid federal recognition of any same-sex marriages, was introduced in May 1996, White House advisers agreed he would have little choice to sign the bill if it passed Congress. (As a simple matter, the bill’s opponents on Capitol Hill lacked the votes to uphold a presidential veto.) When Clinton said so himself, in late May, he was met with outrage from gay and lesbian leaders, who saw the bill as “an election-year baseball bat to bash gay Americans and score political points,” as Human Rights Campaign president Elizabeth Birch put it.

As a result, those in the White House concerned with Clinton’s standing in the gay community agonized over the circumstances of the inevitable signing. They drafted a presidential statement that would communicate Clinton’s lack of enthusiasm for a law passed amid “fierce and at times divisive rhetoric.” Its enactment should not “be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination, violence and intimidation against any person on the basis of sexual orientation,” the signing statement went on.

A president can not sign a bill immediately after Congress is done with it, however. After the Defense of Marriage Act passed the Senate, by an 85-14 margin, on September 10, White House staff waited for the official parchment version to make its way up Pennsylvania Avenue. “Could you be sure to tell me and Richard Socarides the moment the same-sex marriage bill comes in?” deputy counsel Elena Kagan wrote to staff secretary Todd Stern on September 16.

By the time it did, on September 20, the president was far away. Clinton was on the last day of a four-day campaign through western states, due to return to the White House late on Friday. As soon as the bill arrived, Stern asked Socarides, Clinton top adviser on gay issues, if he wanted to fly out west to hand-deliver it to Clinton. Socarides demurred, believing that would convey the impression that Clinton was eager to sign it. The bill could wait until he got back, they agreed, but no longer, out of concern that the wait would only draw more attention.

Copies of the signing statement were handed to the White House press corps on a high-school football field in South Dakota where Clinton was due to make his final stop of the trip. Reporters were informed that he would sign the bill upon arrival at the White House following the flight back east on Air Force One. It was 12:40 a.m. when Bill and Hillary Clinton disembarked from the helicopter on the White House lawn, with the president still wearing the brown leather jacket, jeans and cowboy books he had changed into for the football game. Clinton went inside, and was handed the Defense of Marriage Act by Stern for his signature. The law took effect immediately.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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