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.