In July of 1996, Democratic U.S. Rep. Glen Browder cast a vote to ban the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
Since then, his party and his president have changed their minds about the compromise that gave birth to the Defense of Marriage Act. But Browder says that if given the chance, he’d vote the same way today.
“As a representative of the 3rd District, I would vote in a way that’s consistent with the desires of my constituents,” Browder said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Browder was among the 342 members of the House who voted to pass the act, popularly known as DOMA, which bans the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, and blocks states from recognizing gay unions consecrated in other states. Back then, Alabama’s delegation was almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but all seven House members and both senators voted for the bill.
DOMA was debated again in Washington Wednesday, this time before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Obama administration has declined to defend the law in court; President Barack Obama, once opposed to gay marriage, announced last year that his position on the matter had gone “through an evolution.” Former President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill in 1996, recanted earlier this month, writing in a Washington Post opinion piece that DOMA is “incompatible with our Constitution.”
One member of Alabama’s 1996 delegation has come to regret his vote.
“That bill is unconstitutional and needs to be overturned,” said former Rep. Earl Hilliard, a Democrat who now practices law in Birmingham.
Hilliard said he doesn’t recall why he voted for DOMA years ago. In fact, he initially told the Star he didn’t recall how he’d voted back then. Still, he said, he’s grown more accepting toward the gay community over time.
“I was born and reared in Alabama,” he said. “Later I lived in Atlanta and in DC, and it changes the way you think.”
Having friends who’ve come out as gay has helped shape his beliefs, Hilliard said. So have his own experiences as a black man in Alabama.
“I’ve been a victim of segregation and discrimination,” he said. “That overrides my other views.”
Hilliard said he was and still is a Baptist. He said he believed Baptist doctrine wasn’t compatible with gay marriage — but the law, he said, should be based on constitutional rights and not religious beliefs.
“Otherwise, when there’s a change of religion at the top, everything else changes,” he said.
Browder, now an emeritus professor of political science at Jacksonville State University, indicated his choice on DOMA was driven not by his views about civil rights or morality, but his view of the duties of a Congressman.
“Do you represent what your district wants, or do you represent what you think?” he said. “Those are the issues that you struggle with.”
Political scientist Bill Stewart said that struggle has always been tougher for Southern politicians, who represent a region with strong opinions that aren’t always in line with the rest of the country.
“A lot of Southern politicians felt that pressure during the civil rights era,” said Stewart, a professor emeritus in the University of Alabama’s political science department. “They might have felt conscientiously that black people were deserving of rights, but it was hard to go against the will of their voters.”
Browder said he “didn’t want to get into a public discussion” about his own feelings, as an individual citizen, on gay marriage. He also wouldn’t comment on whether his thinking on the issue has changed, in the way Clinton and Obama say theirs has.
“If they want to talk about their evolution in public, that’s their right,” he said. “I don’t care to go into it.”
Browder came to Congress in 1989 after a special election to replace Democratic Rep. Bill Nichols, who had died in office. He didn't run for re-election to the seat in1996, choosing instead to aim for the Senate, where lost the Democratic primary to Alabama lawmaker Roger Bedford. Republican Bob Riley won Browder's former seat in the
Browder said election pressure wasn't the reason for his vote for DOMA. In fact, he'd already lost the Democratic primary by the time the vote was held.
Instead, he said, he was walking the fine line between acting as a representative for his district and acting as a decision-maker for the area.
“If you cross your district, you had better know why you are crossing your district, and you had better be prepared to come back and explain why you are doing it,” he said.
Asked when he had “crossed” his district in the name of principle, Browder noted that he’d voted to fund an effort to secure nuclear and chemical weapons in facilities in the former Soviet Union, despite criticism from budget hawks back home.
Press accounts from 1996 offer little insight into what Alabama’s nine delegates were thinking at the time of the DOMA vote. Southerners in Congress overwhelmingly supported the bill, and the Alabama politician most often mentioned in Associated Press stories was then-Gov. Fob James, who signed an executive order banning gay marriages in the state while Congress was debating DOMA.
Democrats were widely believed to be under election-year pressure at the time of the 1996 vote, though some members of the Alabama delegation were clearly immune to that pressure. Browder was out of the race, having run for a Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Howell Heflin, who was retiring. Rep. Tom Bevill, a longtime Democratic member of the House, announced his retirement less than a month before voting in favor of DOMA, according to a press account from the time.
Bevill died in 2005. So did Heflin, who also voted for the bill. Attempts to reach former Republican Rep. Sonny Callahan, now a lobbyist in Mobile, were not successful. The same was true for Democrat Robert “Bud” Cramer, now a lobbyist in Washington; and Republican Terry Everett, who retired to a farm in Rehobeth four years ago, according to press report from the time.
Of the nine who voted for the bill, two remain in office. Attempts to reach Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, were unsuccessful Wednesday. A spokesman for Republican Sen. Richard Shelby said the senator signed an amicus brief supporting DOMA in the case before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
“Sen. Shelby voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and continues to stand firm on that vote,” Shelby’s spokesman, Jonathan Graffeo, said in an emailed statement.
Stewart, the political scientist, said that if DOMA were before Congress today, Alabama’s delegation might cast one vote, out of nine, against banning gay marriage. In 1996, significant numbers of Democrats supported DOMA. Today, Stewart said, social-issues votes fall more along party lines.
And the social pressures on politicians are different, too. In 1996, Stewart said, a majority of Americans were against gay marriage. Now polls show a majority for same-sex marriage rights. Even Alabama, he said, is seeing some movement in that direction.
“Opinions are changing, but it’s not changing as drastically as in other parts of the country,” he said. “The point will come when politicians court the gay vote, even in Alabama.”
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.