In 1996, I signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although that was only 17 years ago, it was a very different time. In no state in the union was same-sex marriage recognized, much less available as a legal right, but some were moving in that direction.
Washington, as a result, was swirling with all manner of possible responses, some quite draconian. As a bipartisan group of former senators stated in their March 1 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, many supporters of the bill known as DOMA believed that its passage "would defuse a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which would have ended the debate for a generation or more." It was under these circumstances that DOMA came to my desk, opposed by only 81 of the 535 members of Congress.
On March 27, DOMA will come before the Supreme Court, and the justices must decide whether it is consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality and justice above all, and is therefore constitutional. As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution.
Because Section 3 of the act defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, same-sex couples who are legally married in nine states and the District of Columbia are denied the benefits of more than a thousand federal statutes and programs available to other married couples. Among other things, these couples cannot file their taxes jointly, take unpaid leave to care for a sick or injured spouse or receive equal family health and pension benefits as federal civilian employees. Yet they pay taxes, contribute to their communities and, like all couples, aspire to live in committed, loving relationships, recognized and respected by our laws.
When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that "enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination." Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.
We are still a young country, and many of our landmark civil rights decisions are fresh enough that the voices of their champions still echo, even as the world that preceded them becomes less and less familiar. We have yet to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, but a society that denied women the vote would seem to us now not unusual or old-fashioned but alien. I believe that in 2013 DOMA and opposition to marriage equality are vestiges of just such an unfamiliar society.
Americans have been at this sort of a crossroads often enough to recognize the right path. We understand that, while our laws may at times lag behind our best natures, in the end they catch up to our core values. One hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln concluded a message to Congress by posing the very question we face today: "It is not 'Can any of us imagine better?' but 'Can we all do better?' "
The answer is of course and always yes. In that spirit, I join with the Obama administration, the petitioner Edith Windsor and the many other dedicated men and women who have engaged in this struggle for decades in urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
The writer is the 42nd president of the United States.