EDITORIAL - Marital discord: Obama dances the Marriage Act two-step

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Everybody knows that President Barack Obama is under attack by conservatives. What those same critics refuse to acknowledge is that the president has been pursuing pragmatism, not socialism, and that approach has not endeared him to his own base. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is one of many examples.

The Obama administration is in the odd position of defending in court the statute that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman while the president himself is calling for its repeal.

On Monday, Justice Department attorneys filed more papers seeking the dismissal of a federal suit from California brought by two gay men who are married and challenging the federal marriage law, which prevents gay couples from securing Social Security spousal benefits and filing joint taxes, among other benefits, and from being recognized as married in states that do not have gay marriage.

A government filing in June contained language that seemed to echo the arguments of homophobes. Gay activists and their liberal supporters took it badly, and Mr. Obama, who took note of the complaints, has been trying to make nice ever since.

In conjunction with Monday's filing, which was more reasonably worded, Mr. Obama said Justice Department lawyers are defending the Defense of Marriage Act "as it traditionally does when acts of Congress are challenged." But he also said he plans to work with Congress to repeal the law and he would "examine and implement measures that will help extend rights and benefits to [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] couples under existing law."

His administration's action in defending the law is acceptable only if his words about repealing the law are acted upon. While Mr. Obama certainly has a large agenda, this shouldn't become another compromise to political opponents who are in no mood to compromise themselves.

The Defense of Marriage Act was a product of its time. Exercising their own sovereignty, half a dozen states now allow gay marriage and the federal law has done little to stem the tide. Moreover, the imagined horrors that the law was supposed to protect against have not come to pass. The law itself is unfair, as the suit in California points out.

Never mind his conservative critics. Mr. Obama, who hasn't fulfilled his pledge to end "the don't ask, don't tell policy" on gays in the military, has a lot to do to reassure his liberal friends.

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