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The Defense of Marriage Act: Student Discussion Guide

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided key cases involving same-sex marriage, one of the more prominent social issues of the 21st century. The Court's decision struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had been passed in 1996. This means that federal marriage benefits can now be extended to gay couples who are legally married in their states. The ruling did not, however, establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

To assist teachers in addressing this complex and polarizing issue, EducationWorld offers the following student discussion guide related to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and how it related to the legality of same-sex marriage in individual states.

Also, be sure to use our historical timeline to help students put the issues in broader context. Classroom discussion on the topic is recommended for grades 9-12.same-sex marriage debate

Part 1: The Law

Here are some law-related discussion questions you may want to cover in class:

  1. What did DOMA say, and how did this language impact same-sex couples in the United States?

    This article explains: “DOMA established that no American state, district or territory could be required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. The law also laid out that the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages for any purpose, ranging from issues related to immigration and joint tax filings to the issuance of federal insurance benefits and more.”

    Under DOMA, same-sex couples who married legally in one state did not get the state benefits of marriage if they moved to another state that had not legalized same-sex marriage. Also, no same-sex married couples, regardless of the state in which they live, were entitled to any of the federal benefits associated with traditional marriage.

    A good example of the practical effects of the law was the United States v. Windsor case, where Edith Windsor, one spouse in a same-sex married couple, had to pay a large federal estate tax bill upon her wife’s death. If Windsor had been married to a man, she would not have had to pay this tax. It is this case that brought the DOMA issue to the Supreme Court.
  2. In what legislative climate was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed in 1996?

    The Washington Post article Raw Politics Explains Why DOMA Got Wide Support in 1996 suggests that with President Clinton facing re-election and with Democrats having lost control of the legislature, the administration was hesitant to appear too liberal.
  3. In what U.S. states is same-sex marriage currently legal? What about same-sex civil unions?

    These maps show that as of March 2013, same-sex marriage is (or soon will be) legal in nine states plus the District of Columbia. Eleven states have civil unions or domestic-partnership provisions for same-sex couples (civil unions offer fewer legal benefits for couples). A total of 30 states have banned same-sex marriage.
  4. Is same-sex marriage legal in countries other than the United States?

    As of the years noted, same-sex marriages became legal in the following countries:

    Netherlands – 2001
    Belgium – 2003
    Canada – 2005
    Spain – 2005
    South Africa – 2006
    Norway – 2008
    Sweden – 2009
    Argentina – 2010
    Iceland – 2010
    Portugal – 2010
    Denmark – 2012
    England and Wales – 2013

  5. What does former President Bill Clinton now say about DOMA, which he signed into law?

    Former President Bill Clinton, in the Washington Post editorial It’s Time to Overturn DOMA, says he now views the law as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Clinton says, “I join with the Obama administration…and the many other dedicated men and women who have engaged in this struggle for decades in urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.”
  6. What was President Barack Obama’s view of the law?

    In a 2011 statement from the U.S. attorney general, President Obama was cited as concluding that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, was unconstitutional. President Obama expressed support for repealing the law, calling it “unnecessary and unfair.”
  7. What was involved in the Supreme Court’s current proceedings regarding California’s same-sex marriage ban (called Proposition 8) and DOMA, and what led up to them? What kinds of rulings were anticipated regarding each law?

    This Everything You Need to Know article summarized the decisions at stake. The article Supreme Court Hears Gay Marriage Cases also provided a useful guide to the issues.

    FIRST, The Supreme Court heard the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, filed on behalf of four plaintiffs in same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses in the state of California following the state’s passage of Proposition 8.

    The substantive issues revolved around whether Proposition 8, or bans on same-sex marriage generally, violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

    In 2010, the judge on the case concluded that Proposition 8 “unconstitutionally burdens the exercise of the fundamental right to marry and creates an irrational classification on the basis of sexual orientation.” The Supreme Court therefore heard one of the subsequent appeals to this ruling.

    Regarding Proposition 8, here were some possible rulings:

    --Rule all same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional
    --Rule Proposition 8 unconstitutional but not take a position on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans generally
    --Rule that a state can’t offer civil unions without also offering marriage rights (leaving states with marriage bans untouched but affecting states like New Jersey that allow same-sex civil unions but not same-sex marriages)

    Here's what happened:

    The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal that attempted to defend Proposition 8, clearing the way for same-sex marriages to resume in CA.

    SECOND, this article explains what led up to the Supreme Court proceedings regarding the DOMA case, United States v. Windsor. Via a variety of cases, eight federal courts had previously ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, resulting in a controversy that the Supreme Court took on by agreeing to hear the case.

    Regarding DOMA, possible Supreme Court rulings included:

    --Affirm the lower courts’ rulings and effectively void DOMA only in New York, or in other states where courts have ruled it unconstitutional
    --Void DOMA for all states

    Here's what happened:

    The Supreme Court struck down a key piece of DOMA, meaning that federal marriage benefits can now be extended to gay couples who are legally married in their states. The ruling did not, however, establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Part 2: The Cultural Landscape

EducationWorld provides a nearly two decades-long timeline that chronicles a sampling of legal and cultural changes related to acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) individuals, same-sex couples and the civil rights-related issue of same-sex marriage. Timeline items should be considered snapshots and are not meant to represent the full breadth of these very complex issues.

The timeline begins in 1996 with the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ends with the Supreme Court ruling concerning DOMA. The timeline is useful for classroom discussions centered on the following questions:

  • Between 1996 and 2013, what changed in American society in terms of acceptance of LGBT individuals, views of same-sex couples and laws relevant to same-sex marriage?
  • Is it likely that same-sex marriage has been—and will continue to be—a polarizing (dividing) issue for Americans?

Here is a summary of events in the timeline. See the full timeline for information and links related to these events.


  • Defense of Marriage Act Becomes Law


  • Ellen DeGeneres Comes Out


  • Matthew Shepard Murder Spurs Hate-Crime Legislation
  • Trevor Project Begins Addressing Suicide Risk for LGBT Youth


  • Marriage Equality USA Founded


  • Tony Perkins Heads Family Research Council


  • Seven States Pass Same-Sex Marriage Bans


  • California Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage; Proposition 8 Reverses Law


  • Gay College Student Tyler Clementi Commits Suicide


  • Catholic Archbishop Leads Group to Promote Traditional Marriage


  • After Obama Supports Same-Sex Marriage; Ad Urges African Americans Not to Vote for Him
  • Maine, Washington and Maryland Legalize Same-Sex Marriage


  • State Senator Leads Vigil Supporting Traditional Marriage
  • Starbucks Gets Flak for Supporting Same-Sex Marriage
  • Jenna Wolfe Comes Out
  • Supreme Court Strikes Down Part of DOMA (extending federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in their states)


See the full timeline for information and links related to the above events.

Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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