The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide within days whether to review the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, approved in 1996 and signed by former President Bill Clinton. The act defines marriage as between a man and a woman, allows states not to recognize gay marriages from other states and denies federal health care and other benefits to gay couples.
Former Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent, then a Republican from Tulsa, was one of the lead authors of the House bill. And former U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, a Republican from Ponca City, was the lead author of the Senate bill.
Largent is now president and CEO of a trade association for the wireless communications industry, while Nickles runs his own lobbying firm.
Here are two stories from the 1996 debate:
Bill Would Avert Recognizing Same-Sex Rites
By Chris Casteel
Thursday, May 9, 1996
WASHINGTON – Saying they were concerned that Hawaii may soon sanction same-sex marriages, Sen. Don Nickles and Rep. Steve Largent announced Wednesday they were proposing legislation to prevent states from having to recognize those marriages.
The Oklahoma lawmakers and others sponsoring the legislation said they were not seeking to prevent states from allowing homosexual marriages. However, they said they were worried that a clause in the U.S. Constitution might require other states to give “full faith and credit” to other states’ interpretations of what constitutes marriage.
“This legislation outlaws nothing,” said Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. “It does not outlaw same-sex marriages.”
Instead, Barr said, the bill says states don’t have to recognize another state’s law regarding a marriage between two people of the same sex.
Largent, R-Tulsa, said, “The Defense of Marriage Act is designed to defend the core of what families are – one man and one woman united in marriage. The institution of the family and the institution of marriage have been under frontal assault for years. Society pays the consequences when the family unit is weakened through divorce, illegitimacy, abuse, economic hardship or – in the case of the pending decision of the Hawaii court – redefinition.”
Nickles, R-Ponca City, said he introduced a similar bill in the Senate on Wednesday that was “simple, limited in scope and based on common sense.”
Gay rights groups attacked the legislation on Wednesday, saying it was the product of political extremists.
“This is a calculated national assault on the lives of lesbian and gay people,” said Elizabeth Birch, of the Human Rights Campaign.
Gay Nuptials Bill Sparks Stormy Capitol Debate
By Chris Casteel
Friday, July 12, 1996
WASHINGTON – The issue of same-sex marriages sparked verbal warfare Thursday between Oklahoma and Massachusetts lawmakers, first in a Senate committee and then on the House floor.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Don Nickles had a heated exchange with Sen. Edward Kennedy over Nickles’ legislation to define marriage in federal law as the union of one man and one woman, making gay couples ineligible for certain federal tax, pension and health benefits. The bill would also give states the right not to recognize same-sex marriages sanctioned in other states.
Kennedy, D-Mass., said, “The bill before us is called the Defense of Marriage Act, but a more accurate title would be the Defense of Intolerance Act, or, even more accurately, the Defense of Endangered Republican Candidates Act.”
Kennedy said states aren’t required to recognize marriages from other states that are contrary to their own policy.
“What’s left of this bill is its real goal – it’s a mean-spirited form of legislative gay-bashing designed to inflame the public four months before the November election,” he said.
Nickles, R-Ponca City, said, “I don’t consider myself as mean-spirited or intolerant, and I’m somewhat offended by that language. The bill is not intolerant when it defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. I was raised to believe that.”
Nickles noted that President Clinton had pledged to sign the bill and said he didn’t consider Clinton to be intolerant.
“I take a little issue with the terminology you use,” Nickles told Kennedy. “I don’t think that’s helpful.”
Later, on the House floor, as lawmakers were considering the rules that will govern the debate today on a bill similar to Nickles’, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of three openly gay congressmen, also took issue with the title of the bill, the Defense of Marriage Act.
“How does the fact that I love another man … threaten you?” Frank said, looking at Rep. Steve Largent and other Republican lawmakers. “Are your relationships with your spouses of such fragility that the fact that I have a loving relationship with another man jeopardizes them? What is attacking you?”
Largent, R-Tulsa, said, “Mr. Frank’s commitment to another man doesn’t threaten my marriage. It threatens the institution of marriage.”
“That argument ought to be made by somebody who’s in an institution,” Frank said, adding that the Republican effort to pass the bill was a “desperate search for a political issue.”
Largent said lawmakers “need to step back from the trees and look at the forest and take a long view of the culture. No culture that embraced homosexuality has ever survived.”
Largent is a co-sponsor of the House version of the Defense of Marriage Act, which is expected to be voted on by the full House today. Supporters say the bill is necessary because of the possibility that a lawsuit in Hawaii could result in same-sex marriages being recognized in that state. If that happens, supporters say, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution could require other states to recognize the Hawaiian marriages.
Nickles said the bill doesn’t prevent states from recognizing gay marriages if they so choose. Opponents say final action in the Hawaii case could be years away and that the only reason for considering the bill now is to score political points with anti-gay voters. Some also contend that exceptions to the Full Faith and Credit Clause have been carved out that give states the freedom not to recognize certain legal actions in other states.
Kennedy and some other senators are planning to offer an amendment to Nickles’ bill that would prohibit employers from firing workers because they were gay. During the Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, Kennedy asked Nickles if he would support the amendment.
Nickles said he wouldn’t, and he called it a “killer amendment,” one that would lead to the defeat of his legislation. Nickles said he wouldn’t want to tell the Boy Scouts of America that they had to allow gays to be troop leaders.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the issue of employment discrimination wasn’t about the Boy Scouts, and she asked Nickles whether he would support legislation to prohibit housing discrimination against gays.
Nickles said that he wouldn’t want to require a landlord to lease apartments to gays if most of the other apartments already were leased to traditional families.
Other Democrats on the committee complained about spending time on the issue when other bills, including ones dealing with gangs and illegal drugs, were not being heard.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the committee, said he considered the breakdown of the traditional family a high priority.
“I don’t consider protecting traditional marriage and family values as divisive,” Hatch said.
The committee, which did not vote on Nickles’ bill Thursday, also heard from a panel that included attorneys and the heads of religious and other organizations.
Gary Bauer, with the Family Research Council, testified for Nickles’ bill, saying “Ordinary people did not pick this fight. They are not the aggressors. They are merely defending the basic morality that has sustained the culture for a long, long time. Yet good men and women of varying beliefs have been subjected to a barrage of name-calling and abuse simply for saying that marriage ought to be the union of a man and a woman and that the law should protect this vital social norm.”
Mitzi Henderson, national president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said she appreciated “honest attempts to strengthen the American family.”
Henderson, whose son is gay, said Nickles’ bill would “add another challenge to my job as a parent.”
“My marriage does not need to be defended,” she said. “What my family needs is a more tolerant America.”