President Barack Obama halted federal government’s support for The Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday, a decision that may end federal non-recognition of gay couples in the eight states where same-sex marriage is legally recognized. While left-leaning and gay student organizations on campus lent tempered support to Obama’s decision, some conservatives at Cornell said the order amounted to an abuse of the federal government's power.
The Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, prevents the federal government from acknowledging same-sex marriages. Under the law, states are relieved of any constitutional obligation to enforce judicial custody, alimony and other forms of recognition of same-sex couples. While the Obama administration has said the law is unconstitutional, it must continue to enforce it until it is repealed by Congress or declared unconstitutional in court, according to The New York Times.
Students across the political spectrum reacted differently to Obama’s decision.
Matt Danzer ’12, Student Assembly LGBTQ representative, said that he responded to the news with “cautious optimism.”
“On the one hand, I think it’s a really good step,” Danzer said. “On the other hand, it’s not a repeal of the law. While it’s good news, and while it shows President Obama’s evolution of thinking, it’s not the end goal. It’s a step along the way.”
“I wasn’t so much surprised by his stance because during his campaign, he had said that he was not in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act,” Tony Montgomery ’13, vice president of the Cornell Democrats, said.
Peter Bouris ’12, chair of the Cornell Republicans, said Obama’s decision was unexpected. Bouris said Obama’s reversal marked a departure from his moderate governance — a departure Bouris said would cost Obama politically.
“I didn’t think Obama would consider losing political clout,” Bouris said.
“I can definitely see where President Obama is coming from,” Konstantin Drabkin ’11, former president of the Cornell Republicans. said. “But personally I wish that a different approach had been taken” by the Obama administration. Drabkin said that although he and Bouris would be “sympathetic to the repeal of the law," they believe that Obama overstepped his authority.
Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, took a positive view of Obama’s decision.
“It has to advance the cause,” she said. “Decisions by public officials do affect public opinion.”
Sanders said “things have changed drastically” in Obama’s stance on gay marriage.
Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, said that he was pleased about Obama’s decision, but criticized him for not acting sooner.
“I found it astonishing for a man of his learning,” he said. “For a black leader to have prejudice is wrong.” Lowi went on to denounce what he referred to as Obama’s “narrow-mindedness,” calling him “an incomplete person.”
After Obama’s past inaction, Lowi said that Obama “might as well be 13 again … Ask him about masturbation.”
Still, Lowi said Obama’s decision would “send a message” to conservatives who did not think Obama backed gay marriage.
The long-term consequences of Obama’s announcement remain to be seen.
“I would honestly like to see the courts rule the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional,” Danzer, the S.A. representative, said. “Whether the government no longer defending the law makes its repeal any more likely, I’m not sure. But if that happens, I would be extremely happy.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story suggested that Cornell Republicans Konstantin Drabkin ’11 and Peter Bouris ’11 support the Defense of Marriage Act. Although Drabkin and Bouris do oppose Obama's order to the Justice Department to stop enforcing the law, calling this an abuse of executive power, the Republicans agree with the administration that the law is unconstitutional, and would favor repealing it through the legislative process.