UPDATE: Is DOMA a dead issue?
UPDATE: Just wanted to draw attention to David Gibson's far more insightful and lucid post about the Obama administration and DOMA at Politics Daily, which includes insight on the evangelical side of things.
News that the Obama administration will no longer defend one section of the Defense of Marriage Act--the section that prevents the federal government from recognizing legal marriages for the purposes of taxes and other federal benefits--has drawn criticism from many quarters, including the U.S. bishops. The USCCB's general counsel issued a statement that called the decision a "grave affront to the millions of Americans who both reject unjust discrimination and affirm the unique and inestimable value of marriage as between one man and one woman." It goes on to suggest that it "a serious threat to the religious liberty of marriage supporters nationwide.”
With Hawaii and Illinois recently enancting civil unions for same-sex couple, and Maryland about to enact equal marriage rights, I do not see how this is a winning argument for the bishops (or for anyone). The argument is already lost, especially among those under 40, who do not see any problem with gay marriage. More and more Americans do see denying same-gender couples at least equivalent rights to opposite-gender couples (if not marriage as such) as unjust discrimination. The case that provoked the administration's change in tack is a perfect example: When one partner of a lesbian couple who married in Canada died, the surviving partner was taxed on her own property as if she were completely unrelated to her partner. How is that fair?
I still think the bishops have a more generous way out of this situation, and that is simply to lobby for a more expansive family law that extends the many benefits of marriage to other family situations--call them whatever you want. That will inevitably include same-gender couples, but it could also include households in which children are raised by a mother and grandmother, older adults who live together and share expenses, and so on. That civil definition of family could easily be distinguished from the sacramental reality recognized by the church.
There is no reason that our family law needs to be based on a perceived romantic or sexual relationship (so please no comments about people marrying their pets). A more generous approach to the definition of family could be good for many people, especially children who are being raised in a situation other than with their married birth parents.
I have a feeling, however, the bishops will not be going in that direction.