Clinton signs law withholding benefits for same-sex marriage President cautions against using bill as excuse for discrimination

September 22, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Acting after midnight and without fanfare, President Clinton signed into law yesterday a politically popular attack by Congress on homosexual marriages, should they ever become legal anywhere in the nation.

As of now, couples of the same sex are not allowed to get married in any state, and it may be two years before that becomes legally possible in the only state now studying the issue, Hawaii.

A case testing the right to marry in Hawaii went to trial this month.

A Baltimore couple, Genora Dancel and Ninia Baehr, who formerly lived in Honolulu and who want to return there to get married, are involved in the case.

In a political campaign year in which many candidates are seeking to emphasize a commitment to traditional "family values," Congress passed its two-level challenge to same-sex marriages by overwhelming majorities: 342-67 in the House in July, 85-14 in the Senate this month.

It thus joined in a fast-moving campaign that spread among state legislatures and governors' mansions this year.

In just eight months, same-sex marriage has been banned by 15 legislatures and by two governors' executive orders.

A bill to do so in Maryland did not advance in the General Assembly this year, but it is expected to be offered again.

Several polls this year have shown that homosexual marriage is opposed by 60 percent or more of those who responded to those surveys.

The president's endorsement of the new law angered gay rights groups.

The Human Rights Campaign, a supporter of gays and lesbians, accused Clinton of becoming "the first president in history to trample on states' traditional jurisdiction over marriage."

Other activists said the signature would cost the president the political support of homosexuals in November.

The new federal law signed by Clinton early yesterday, after he returned from a campaign trip, has two parts:

It says that no U.S. state or territory has any legal duty to respect a marriage between homosexuals, even if such a marriage is valid in any other state. That is an attempt to head off arguments that the Constitution requires each state to honor every other state's legal proceedings under the "full faith and credit" clause.

It flatly bans any form of federal aid to a married couple unless the couple is in "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." That would rule out any use in the future by a married homosexual couple of tax or other benefits tied to marriage.

Gay rights groups, several Democrats in Congress and some legal scholars have argued that both parts of the law are unconstitutional, on the theory that Congress has no power to deal with states' recognition of marriage and that excluding homosexuals from public benefits is unconstitutional discrimination, especially in the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling ensuring homosexuals some forms of legal equality.

But gay rights lawyers have argued that the practical effect of the new law is so far in the future that no one would be allowed to get into court to challenge its constitutionality.

No one could claim to be affected by a law until marriage was legal somewhere, those attorneys have said.

The president signed the measure after promising weeks ago that he would do so and after the Justice Department told Congress it thought the law would withstand a constitutional challenge.

Even though Clinton signed the law without protesting any of its contents, his press secretary, Mike McCurry, undertook to criticize the law's supporters.

The bill was signed in the middle of the night, McCurry said, because "the president believes the motives behind this bill are dubious and the president believes that the sooner he gets this over with, the better."

In a statement, the president said the new law should not "provide an excuse for discrimination, violence or intimidation against any person on the basis of sexual orientation."

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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