WASHINGTON — In 1996, then-Sen. Don Nickles helped lead the charge in Congress to define marriage in federal law as the legal union between a man and a woman.
At the time, no states recognized same-sex marriages, and the Oklahoma Republican's legislation didn't prohibit states from defining marriage for themselves.
But it said states didn't have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and that the federal government would not extend its entire range of benefits to same-sex spouses.
Nickles' bill, the Defense of Marriage Act, sailed through the U.S. Senate by a vote of 85 to 14 and through the House by a vote of 346 to 67. It was signed by President Bill Clinton.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of that law. Justices also will hear arguments in a case regarding California's constitutional ban against gay marriage.
Depending on how the court rules in the cases, Oklahoma's constitutional ban on gay marriage could be struck down. However, in the range of potential rulings, justices also could allow states to continue to set their own definitions of marriage. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has joined briefs in the cases arguing that the federal law and California's ban should be upheld.
In an interview last week, Nickles, who now leads a lobbying company in Washington, said he recalled Clinton's rush to sign the legislation into law in 1996, the year the Democratic president ran for re-election.
Clinton has since reversed his position, and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, came out last week in support of gay marriage.
Nickles said he didn't know whether his bill would even pass the Senate now.
“It wouldn't get the lopsided vote it got then,” he said.
Public opinion shift
According to polls, public opinion has shifted dramatically on the issue of gay marriage. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released last week showed 58 percent of those surveyed said same-sex couples should be allowed to get married. Nine states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage.
Former U.S. Rep. Steve Largent, a Republican who represented Oklahoma's 1st District in the House in 1996, was one of the lead sponsors of the House legislation. Nickles said it was Largent who asked him to carry the Senate bill.
Largent, who now heads the Wireless Association in Washington, declined to be interviewed last week about the Supreme Court case but said in an email that he still feels as adamantly now about the sanctity of marriage.
Spokesmen for current Oklahoma Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, who was in the U.S. House in 1996, and Jim Inhofe, who was in the Senate that year, said last week that the lawmakers still support the Defense of Marriage Act.
The Obama administration has refused to defend the law, saying it denies equal protection to same-sex couples and “an array of important federal benefits that are available to legally married opposite-sex couples.”
According to the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, there are more than 1,100 sections in federal law in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights and privileges. Benefits related to Social Security, health care and veterans services are among those affected. Same-sex couples also can't file joint tax returns.
A brief filed in the case says that the U.S. Army couldn't notify the spouse of a female staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan and couldn't give her the flag that was draped on the officer's coffin.
The case before the Supreme Court was originally brought by a woman who was not allowed to claim the spousal deduction for estate taxes when her spouse died. It cost her more than $363,000.
A federal judge in New York ruled in the woman's favor last year, and that ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court.
The appeals court said the law's classification of “same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest. Accordingly, we hold that Section 3 of (the Defense of Marriage Act) violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional.”
Nickles said last week that the section on federal benefits was included to ensure that the federal government didn't “subsidize” same-sex marriage.
When the bill was approved in 1996, he said, the section on federal benefits was a relatively small part of the debate. The main intent of the bill, he said, was to protect states that didn't support gay marriage from having to sanction same-sex marriages from other states.