Describing yesterday's Supreme Court ruling striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as a "victory for American democracy," President Barack Obama said Thursday he believes the decision to award lawfully married same-sex couples full federal rights and benefits should apply in all 50 states, including those that do not recognize same-sex marriage.
"It's my personal belief -- but I'm speaking now as a President as opposed to as a lawyer -- that if you've been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you're still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple. But I'm speaking as a President, not a lawyer,” Obama said at a press conference with Senegal President Macky Sall during his trip to Africa.
Hours after yesterday's landmark 5-4 decision, which struck down the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, there remains uncertainty for how the DOMA decision will apply to same-sex couples who were legally married in states that recognize marriage equality, but have moved to states that do not recognize their marriages. According to the Human Rights Campaign, some federal agencies look to where a marriage was performed to determine benefits, while others look to the current state of residence. And because the Supreme Court only considered the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA, rather than the entire act, advocates insist Congress must repeal DOMA in its entirety. More than 1,100 federal rights and benefits were previously denied to same-sex couples under DOMA.
The former law professor noted that the Supreme Court did not issue a "blanket ruling that applies nationally," but rather one that made it so the federal government could not "negate" the decision of states who choose to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.
"We now have to comb through every federal statute. And although we hadn't pre-judged what the ruling had been, I had asked my White House Counsel to help work with lawyers across every agency in the federal government to start getting a sense of what statutes would be implicated and what it will mean for us to administratively apply the rule that federal benefits apply to all married couples," Obama said. "What's true though is that you still have a whole bunch of states that do not recognize it. The Supreme Court continues to leave it up to the states to make these decisions. And we are going to have to go back and do a legal analysis of what that means."
Describing yesterday as a proud day for America, the president reiterated that various department, including the Department of Defense, are working to see same-sex couples are granted the same rights and benefits previously denied to them under DOMA as quickly as possible.
Yesterday, the Respect for Marriage Act, which would award full federal benefits to married same-sex couples living in states where their marriages are not recognized, was reintroduced in the Senate and House of Representatives with the backing of organizations such as HRC. Obama has supported the Respect for Marriage Act in the past, but the White House did not immediately confirm whether he supports the legislation after the Supreme Court's ruling.
Obama also took the opportunity to address how gays and lesbians are treated in Africa, stating that while every country has their own customs and traditions, the Golden Rule — "treat people the way you want to be treated" — should always apply.
"[W]hen it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally. I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort," Obama said. "And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens."
While President Sall agreed with Obama's assessment that every nation is different, he said his nation was not yet ready to take that step.
"Senegal, as far as it is concerned, is a very tolerant country which does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being. We don't tell anybody that he will not be recruited because he is gay or he will not access a job because his sexual orientation is different," Sall said. "But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality."
[Photo: Barack Obama (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)]