Obama Still Backs DOMA Repeal, Aide Says

Spokeswoman’s remarks follow a Friday MTV interview that some news outlets had characterized as a retreat by Obama on the issue.

President Barack Obama was in New Hampshire on Saturday, shaking hands and seeking votes. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Obama “has and continues to support” the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, an Obama campaign spokeswoman told BuzzFeed on Saturday, strongly rejecting suggestions otherwise in recent news reports.

“President Obama has been consistent since early in his administration in his support for repealing DOMA. The President has and continues to support the repeal of DOMA and he endorsed legislation currently pending in Congress that would do just that,” Obama spokeswoman Clo Ewing told BuzzFeed.

The remarks came following an ABC News report that characterized an answer Obama gave to an MTV interview by stating that the president “demurred” when “[a]sked if he would use his second term as a platform to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act … saying he viewed it as an issue for the states to decide.”

The report went on: “‘For us to try to legislate federally into this area is probably the wrong way to go,’ Obama told MTV presenter Sway Calloway, who asked questions submitted by youth voters.

A campaign official noted, however, that the reporter was not asking about the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex couples’ marriages. A review of the full transcript shows that the question was referencing state recognition of marriage and that the quoted portion of Obama’s remarks were a reference to that, not DOMA. The question:

Over 2/3 of young Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage, but we often hear “what is the next step”? Now you’ve said that it’s a states rights issue, but historically the federal government has stepped in to ensure equality for Americans in all states. During President Johnson’s administration we saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, and the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision struck down all race-based restrictions on marriage. Now if you believe this is the right thing, Mr. President, during your second term will you see this thing through to ensure that all Americans have equal rights in the eyes of the federal government?

In Obama’s response, he said:

[H]istorically, marriages have been defined at the state level. There’s a conversation going on. New York has moved forward with one set of ideas. There are some other states that are still having that debate. I think that, for us to try to legislate federally into this area is probably the wrong way to go. The courts are going to be examining these issues.

In the second half of his answer, moreover, Obama specifically reiterated his opposition to DOMA, although he did not reference legislative repeal:

I’ve stood up and said I’m opposed to the so-called Defense Against Marriage Act, because what that does is it says that the federal government won’t even recognize a marriage for a state that has decided that they’re going to recognize same-sex couples. … I’ve said that’s wrong. There are a couple of cases that are working their way through the courts, and my expectation is that the Defense of Marriage Act will be overturned.

University of Pennsylvania law professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, an adviser to the administration on LGBT issues, called the coverage “a mistake” and added, “The President has been calling for the repeal of the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage’ Act for years, and he has strongly endorsed legislation in Congress that would get rid of that discriminatory statute. … Eliminating discrimination at the federal level has been, and remains, a priority for the Obama administration.”

Obama has long-held opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act. Since February 2011, he has enunciated a view that Section 3 of DOMA — the federal definition of “marriage” as being only marriages between one man and one woman — is unconstitutional. And, since July 2011, he has endorsed specific legislation to repeal DOMA, the Respect for Marriage Act. And, on Friday, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to take a case in the coming year to decide the constitutionality of DOMA’s federal definition of marriage.

Wolff also described the issues underlying the portion of Obama’s answer that appears to have led to the coverage, stating, “What repealing DOMA would not do is require marriage equality at the state level. Repealing DOMA would not change state law at all. And that is what MTV asked Mr. Obama: whether Congress should do something completely different and pass a law that would require all the States to recognize marriage equality at the state level. The President’s answer on that question was exactly correct: Marriage law has traditionally been treated as a state issue. Under current Supreme Court precedent, Congress would not have the power to pass such a law even if it wanted to.”

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