Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Don't Ask Don't Tell vs. Defense of Marriage Act

At The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Scott H. Payne expresses his displeasure with President Obama regarding two issues relating to civil rights and equality for gay people:
It is, I suppose, until one sees the run-off impacts of pushing the need to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or the Defense of Marriage Act off to another day, or not having a President who believes in equal rights under the law speak loudly and clearly of the need to support marriage equality, or inviting Rick Warren to participate in the inauguration of that President in the harsh and unforgiving light of purely putative and explicitly discriminatory legislation elsewhere.
I don't share Scott's disappointment in Barack Obama (I didn't have particularly high hopes for him, and he claimed to oppose same-sex marriage during the campaign), however, I share his displeasure with the lack of corrective action regarding Don't Ask Don't Tell.  It is a vile policy that should be repealed forthwith.

However, I'm not as convinced about DOMA.  According to wikipedia, DOMA has two effects:
  1. No state (or other political subdivision within the United States) needs to treat a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage, even if the relationship is considered a marriage in another state.
  2. The federal government defines marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman.
I'm fully in support of the first effect.  Civil marriage is, rightfully, the domain of each individual state.  The federal government has no standing to impose the decision of one state on another.  This means there will be unfair treatment of homosexual couples, but there will be a fair process of establishing what is considered civil marriage in each state.

It may seem paradoxical - to support same sex marriage, but also to support a state's right to deny recognizing it - but procedural justice is important for democracy and liberty.  Proposition 8 in California is wretched law, and I am no fan of plebiscites to decide such matters of policy.  However, it was a step up from the previous situation, in which gay marriage was forced on the state by judges.  Prop 8 may have lead to a poorer policy, but it was an improvement in terms of the democratic process in California.

The second effect in DOMA seems a little less defensible.  If DOMA is to leave marriage in the hands of each state, it seems odd to then have the federal government defiantly refuse to acknowledge any legal same sex union.  I can see how this is a very tricky situation.  The federal government must treat everyone the same, and, thus, until all states support same sex marriage, the federal government might be required to fully oppose it, lest it lead to some other challenge (equal protection, perhaps?) that would facilitate a federal court to impose gay marriage on all states.

If all the the second point does is safeguard against such an imposition by federal courts, I'm all for it.  However, it seems to me that it is not only safeguarding traditional marriage definitions in some states, but also negating same sex marriage in other states.  That seems to strike against any notion of federalism.

Now, I may be reading too much into it, and it might just be necessary to fully protect federalism, but it just seems quite wrong.  I would prefer DOMA be stripped of this portion, or at least have it re-written to read something like, "[t]he federal government defines marriage as a legal union between two people, in accordance with the laws of the state in which they reside."  I'm fully aware this could lead to all sorts of other problems (and I'm not a lawyer... or even an American... so I'm just taking a blind stab at this make believe legslative writing), but the spirit is more in line with what I would wish to see in any legislation like DOMA.

It is these sorts of intricacies that lead to a slow and methodical approach to crafting public policy, and, generally, this has its benefits.  However, if you have no philosophical hang ups to gays in the military and no philosophical objection to the judicial imposition of same sex marriage, there is little reason for caution.

And from that perspective, I fully understand Scott's despair.

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