Bill Clinton
Former president Bill Clinton at the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Former president Bill Clinton wants the Supreme Court to overturn the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). That’s the discriminatory law he signed in 1996 that defined marriage as between one man and one woman and dictated that same-sex marriages performed in one state need not be recognized by other states. The statute was and remains a harsh piece of legislation that walled off full participation in the “American dream” from gay and lesbian Americans whose tax dollars help fuel it for others.

Arguments about the constitutionality of DOMA will be heard by the Supreme Court at the end of this month. Many concerned groups and individuals have filed amicus briefs that make the case that the 17-year-old law singles out same-sex couples for second-class citizenship. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, with its history of fighting racial discrimination, added its powerful voice calling for DOMA’s demise. And now Clinton.

In an op-ed today in The Post, the former president reminds us of the hysterical swirl of events that caused DOMA to become law. He cited an amicus brief filed March 1 by a bipartisan group of senators who noted that some support for DOMA was tactical. The belief was that passage of DOMA “would defuse a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.” And if you don’t think that concern was rooted in real fear, consider this. Since DOMA was signed into law, 31 states have enacted their own constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. That’s seven states shy
of the 38 needed to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.” Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.

As welcome as Clinton’s words are, there are two that are conspicuously absent: I’m sorry.

Sorry for signing the bill. Sorry for crowing about it in radio ads on Christian radio stations during his ’96 reelection campaign. Sorry for the harm it has caused same-sex couples and the income inequality it exacerbates.

“We understand that, while our laws may at times lag behind our best natures, in the end they catch up to our core values,” Clinton writes today. And that’s what I want to applaud today. Clinton’s actions of late are catching up to his core values.

He first voiced support for same-sex marriage in 2009. Two years later, he spoke up for gay nups in New York State. Last year, he recorded a robo-call urging North Carolina voters to reject that state’s proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. And now today’s op-ed urging the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. More than 100 prominent Republicans signed an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8 to make same-sex marriage legal again in California. President Obama, Vice President Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment support marriage equality. Two of the leading potentials candidates for the party’s nomination in 2016 — Gov. Andrew Cuomo (N.Y.) and Gov. Martin O’Malley (Md.) — personally guided their states to nuptial inclusion.

On the issue of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, the country has come a long way. On whether committed same-sex couples should have all the rights and responsibilities, not to mention the dignity and social affirmation, that accrue to marriage, the nation has progressed faster than anyone could have reasonably imagine.

That the Supreme Court is set to hear the question on DOMA’s constitutionality is a hopeful sign that the demise of this discriminatory is near. That the man who made it law now says it should be overturned ought to hasten it.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.