By Brandon Breslow
More than 200 people watched as Danaya Wright, UF Research Foundation and Clarence J. TeSelle Professor of Law, debated with a legal expert from the Alliance Defense Fund over Congress's power to define marriage at UF Law Oct. 19.
"The Federal Defense of Marriage Act: Is It Constitutional?" was a debate sponsored by the UF Federalist Society and OUTLaw: UF Law's Gay & Straight Alliance. Students, faculty and others interested in the subject were invited to the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom, HOL 180, at the UF Levin College of Law to watch Wright and Austin Nimocks, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, argue the issues behind the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
The Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996, defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman for the purposes of federal law and gives states the option to not recognize domestic partnerships or other civil unions that are official in another state.
"Nimocks testified this summer before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of DOMA," said Jordan Pratt (3L), co-president of The UF Federalist Society, "and we thought it would be a real treat for students to get to ask questions of someone who is an actual participant in the debate on Capitol Hill."
When the UF Federalist Society announced it would be bringing Nimocks as part of its speaker series, it invited progressive groups on campus to comment. OUTLaw responded with the idea for a debate between Nimocks and Wright.
"We wanted to respond in some way," said Max Wihnyk (2L) and president of OUTLaw, "but we weren't sure how. We worked with the UF Federalist Society and decided a debate would be the most helpful and the most fruitful for all of the law students."
Nimocks and Wright were each given an allotted time to make their arguments, with Nimocks going first with his points and last with a rebuttal to Wright's position. Arguments ranged from constitutional to economic to historical, showing the issue of defining marriage goes beyond that of morality.
"We believe that balanced, open, and respectful debate fosters the values upon which the legal academy was founded," Pratt said, "and we are happy to provide a forum where ideas can be discussed among students and faculty."
Nimocks argued that the economic benefits of marriage, such as tax breaks, were incentives for procreation and that judicial precedent gave Congress the power to limit such benefits to certain groups of people.
"The Equal Protection Clause does not require that we treat different things the same," Nimocks said. "We would have to believe there are no differences between men and women to believe that what sexes make up a marriage would make no difference."
Wright's counterpoint was that DOMA violates the United States Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and, in some applications, may violate the Tenth Amendment. She also addressed Nimocks' economic argument by discussing the circumstances under which married couples do not procreate while same-sex couples may successfully adopt and raise children.
"If society cares about children, it should encourage same-sex marriage," Wright said. "There is no rational basis for denying those who society deem more at risk of social and health problems from participating in an institution that is proven to lower these risks."
After Nimocks and Wright concluded their arguments, attendees were given the opportunity to ask the speakers questions about their positions on DOMA and the future of the act.
"We had 203 people in a room, all with different opinions, and they each got to listen to — and participate in — a respectful two-way dialogue on an issue that often evokes strong feelings on both sides," Pratt said. "We would call that a success."
As part of diversity month, University of Florida LGBT Affairs created a "Making it Better" video, which is a compilation of UF faculty, support staff, and students and can be viewed here.