Big news from the Department of Justice, which announced that President Obama ordered the administration to stop fighting for Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. He's decided that the federal law, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, discriminates against gay spouses and, therefore, is unconstitutional. It remains in effect unless Congress repeals it, and the administration will continue to enforce it — but they will no longer defend it in court.
The president had always opposed DOMA, even promising a repeal from the campaign trail, but the Justice Department is required to defend federal laws if reasonable arguments can be made. Yet in light of two new lawsuits challenging Section 3, the administration concluded that gays and lesbians deserved a higher standard of scrutiny.
"This decision is about the president's recognition that DOMA is not just a law on the books, but a deliberate strategy to bring discrimination against the LGBT community," says Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Lettman-Hicks told The Root that she believes Obama's stand against DOMA is directly related to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and an effort to now acknowledge and extend benefits to gay military spouses. “We're removing the discriminatory practice of not admitting openly gay and lesbian individuals into the military, but, at the highest level of government, DOMA is just another layer of discrimination,” she said.
In terms of civilians, Lettman-Hicks points out that a reversal of DOMA would also have particularly high stakes for black LGBT families. “The last Census showed that black families headed by same-sex couples are two times more likely to be raising children than white same-sex couples,” she explained. “We're nontraditional households. We take in our nieces and nephews and everyone else, as well as having our own children. The trends of black LGBT families are not much different than those of the greater black community.”
By virtue of that, ending DOMA would give those families the federal protections of marriage, such as health care benefits and family tax credits. The president's decision doesn't get them there yet, but it's a big step in that direction.
As for “But what took him so long?” skepticism surrounding the announcement, Lettman-Hicks rushed to the president's defense. In fact, the National Black Justice Coalition recently issued a Midterm Report Card (pdf) giving the Obama administration high marks for a commitment to equality for LGBT people.
"I think that anyone who would chastise the president, who has done more for gay rights in two years than any of his predecessors, are on some new-wave cynicism to think that public policy changes overnight," she said. "I find the ardent support he has given the LGBT community unprecedented — to not think of the political consequences, but to think about what's right."