January 24, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Obama has leeway in defense of DOMA: activists

The heads of LGBT legal organizations say that the Obama administration has considerable leeway in how it defends the Defense of Marriage Act in court — even if officials believe they’re obligated to uphold the statute.

The Obama administration’s defense of DOMA, which prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriage, has inspired debate among LGBT rights supporters about whether the Justice Department is required to defend the law.

The LGBT advocates commented on the issue during an eQualityThinking panel on Monday in response to a question from moderator and Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff.

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, said he’s “not completely convinced” the Justice Department is compelled to defend DOMA, but said even it is, the administration doesn’t need to use every argument to defend the statute.

“They have great leeway in deciding what arguments they will make and what arguments they won’t make,” Cathcart said. “I don’t accept the notion that if they have to defend, it means they have to throw in arguments that have been discredited and argue issues that should never see the light of day.”

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, noted the Obama administration has mounted “a more full-throated defense” than what was necessary in its early defense of DOMA.

The 2009 defense of DOMA in the case of Smelt v. United States, the first brief the Obama administration filed in defense of the law, inspired resentment in the LGBT community early last year for drawing on case law to compare same-sex marriage to pedophilia and bestiality.

“They included very offensive language around parenting,” Kendell said. “It wasn’t a direct comparison between LGBT relationships and pedophilia or bestiality, but it was close enough, and it was appalling.”

Kendell said her organization has had conversations with the Justice Department to make clear that those arguments were not only unacceptable and baseless. Following these conversations, she said the Obama administration made some changes in how it defended DOMA.

“They have made some accommodations that well reflect the values that the administration say[s] they espouse, but I think — I’ll speak for ourselves for our purposes and to our case — they certainly haven’t gone as far as they should go,” Kendell said.

Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said even if the Obama administration opted not to defend DOMA, the Justice Department would have to formally notify Congress to give lawmakers the opportunity to defend the statute.

“There is a possibility for the Justice Department not to defend, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a defense of the laws that Congress passes,” she said.

GLAD has filed two lawsuits against DOMA: Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which is pending before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, and Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management, which is pending before the U.S. District Court of Connecticut.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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