WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton lauded Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that he signed into law nearly two decades ago.
"By overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the court recognized that discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union," Clinton said in a joint statement released with his wife, Hillary.
The 5-4 decision striking down the federal law that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman will allow married same-sex couples to be eligible for federal benefits. The decision leaves it to individual states to decide who can marry.
The justices, in a separate but related case, cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California without establishing a constitutional right for gays to marry in all states.
Clinton’s reaction to the rulings by the nation’s highest court stood in stark contrast to members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation who expressed disappointment with the decision and reaffirmed their opposition to same-sex marriage.
"As a firm believer that the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is the right one, and the most effective framework for raising a family, I am disappointed by today’s Supreme Court decision," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
The Arkansas Constitution was amended by referendum in 2004 to prohibit same-sex marriages. The referendum, which was approved by 75 percent of voters, defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
"Arkansas determined that marriage is between a man and a woman and my personal belief that marriage is between a man and a woman remains," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
Jerry Cox, president of the Christian conservative group Family Council, issued a statement saying the ruling was "not as good as we had hoped or as bad as we feared."
"The good news is the court did not find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage," Cox said. "Arkansas’ marriage amendment still stands, as do laws in 37 other states defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Stonewall Democratic Caucus of Arkansas hailed the decision as a victory for gay rights.
"Today the United States Supreme Court recognized that gay men and lesbians deserve the same dignity and respect as straight people, and that their monogamous, committed, loving relationships do, too," said Rita Sklar, director of ACLU of Arkansas.
"Though there will be no immediate impact within the state of Arkansas, this will certainly go a long ways in changing hearts, minds and opinions of the citizens of our state," said Eric McDaniel, president of Stonewall Democratic Caucus of Arkansas.
In overturning DOMA, the justices have made available to married gay couples more than 1,100 federal benefits now available to married heterosexual couples, said Holly Dickson, legal director of ACLU of Arkansas. Those benefits include family medical leave, social security survivor’s benefits and access to health care for a spouse.
"Though we will have to watch for implementation, married same-sex couples should now be eligible for these benefits and protections," Dickson said.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native, said that the focus now is on making sure federal benefits are available to married gay and lesbian couples.
"We are committed to working with the administration to ensure that the greatest number of lesbian and gay couples are afforded the greatest number of federal benefits as quickly as possible," he said.
In states where same-sex marriages are recognized, Griffin expects married gay couples will quickly have equal access to federal benefits. However, there is less clarity in states like Arkansas that do not recognize same-sex marriages.
"Even with DOMA out of the way, different federal programs have different rules that determine where an agency looks to decide if a marriage is valid — either place of celebration or place of residence," Griffin said. "Most of these rules are policies, regulations or simply practices that the Obama Administration can change through existing processes."
Griffin spoke Wednesday with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and said he was assured that the Department of Justice would go through a thorough and thoughtful process to implement the Supreme Court decision.
Cox said the Supreme Court decision does not end the marriage debate.
"Opponents of traditional marriage tried to disenfranchise millions of voters with two court rulings today. That did not happen. Same-sex marriage is not the forgone conclusion many would have us believe it is," Cox said.
Clinton publicly disavowed the Defense of Marriage Act in a March opinion column that was published by the Washington Post as the Supreme Court prepared to hear oral arguments on the law.
At the time he signed the law, Clinton said he had hoped it would defuse efforts to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Seventeen years later, Clinton said he had come to view the law as contrary to the principles of freedom, equality and justice above all that define the nation.
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, issued statements expressing their disappointment with the Justices and their support in the Arkansas prohibition on same-sex marriage.
"The people of Arkansas have already spoken decisively on this issue. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Arkansas delegation to make sure our state’s voice is represented loud and clear," Crawford said.
"While disappointed, I am encouraged that the court recognized Arkansas’ constitutional sovereignty so we can continue to protect the sanctity of marriage in our state," Womack said.
"I disagree with today’s ruling, but it should be noted that it addresses eligibility for federal protections and responsibilities and doesn’t affect the decision by the overwhelming majority of Arkansans," Griffin said.
"I’m disappointed in the Supreme Court’s liberal activist decision," Cotton said. "But I am pleased that state laws, such as the Arkansas Marriage Amendment, remain in effect to protect the traditional understanding of marriage."