The reaction to Representative Jerrold Nadler's House bill that repeals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has been swift and, in some cases, heated.

Nadler, a Democrat from New York and a staunch supporter of gay rights, introduced the Respect for Marriage Act of 2009 this morning at a press event at House Triangle, an outdoor venue near the Capitol steps. He said the bill enjoyed the support of 91 co-sponsors in the House.

“The full repeal of DOMA is long overdue,” Nadler said. “When DOMA was passed in 1996, its full harm may not have been apparent to all Members of Congress because same-sex couples were not yet able to marry. It was a so-called ‘defense’ against a hypothetical harm. This made it easy for our opponents to demonize gay and lesbian families. Now, in 2009, we have tens of thousands of married same-sex couples in this country, living openly, raising families and paying taxes in states that have granted them the right to marry, and it has become abundantly clear that, while the sky has not fallen on the institution of marriage, as DOMA supporters had claimed, DOMA is causing these couples concrete and lasting harm. Discrimination against committed couples and stable families is terrible federal policy. But, with a President who is committed to repealing DOMA and a broad, diverse coalition of Americans on our side, we now have a real opportunity to remove from the books this obnoxious and ugly law.”

Two of the men directly involved in the passage of DOMA 13 years ago came out in favor of repeal. Former President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill into law, and former Georgia Representative Bob Barr, the law's author, both said they support Nadler's bill.

“When the Defense of Marriage Act was passed gay couples could not marry anywhere in the United States or the world for that matter,” Clinton said. “Thirteen years later, the fabric of our country has changed, and so should this policy.”

The bill does not repeal DOMA entirely. Instead it focuses on Section 3 of the law, which defines marriage as a heterosexual union for the federal government, and leaves untouched the law's provisions that allows states to ignore legal gay marriages performed outside their borders. But the bill would recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples living in states that have outlawed the institution – so long as the couple married in a state where it is legal for gay couples to marry. Currently, only five states have legalized gay marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Maine lawmakers approved a gay marriage law in the spring, but a voter-initiated referendum will decide its fate this fall. Likely to follow suit are New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

Gay and lesbian couples living in a state where gay marriage is legal would receive all the federal and state benefits of marriage, while those living in states that do not recognize the practice would only receive federal benefits such as Social Security and pensions.

“Homosexual activists and their congressional supporters are making the outrageous claim that protecting marriage is a form of discrimination,” Shari Rendall, director of legislation for the conservative group Concerned Women for America (CWA), said in a statement. “But the reverse is true – failing to protect marriage and overturning marriage laws will result in reverse discrimination against people who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

The National Organization for Marriage, the nation's most vociferous opponent of gay marriage, immediately attacked the bill.

“We've known this day would come,” Brian Brown, the group's president, said in an urgent alert to members.

“And we're ready. Already, we are more than 500,000 strong as Americans from every walk of life have joined our ranks to stand firm against radical efforts to force same-sex marriage in every state,” he added.

Nadler was joined at the podium by an army of gay leaders and allies.

Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, called himself a conservative for supporting the bill.

“Today, in supporting this act, I am an arch conservative. Why is that? Because when you think about it, what have the conservatives said for all time about government's role? That government's role is to stay out of people's personal lives,” he said.

“Opponents of the repeal are often ironically the same people who oppose big government,” Quigley later added in a statement released after the event. “But what's bigger, or frankly more appalling, than a government that tells you who you can love?”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocate, said DOMA “hurts families.”

“Today thousands of couples are married,” he told reporters. “Today, several states recognize our equality. Yet we remain strangers under federal law. The harm is real.”

Openly gay legislators Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Colorado Congressman Jared Polis also spoke at the event.

“In support of families throughout the nation, our legislation will extend to same-sex, legally married couples the same federal rights and recognition now offered to heterosexual married couples, nothing more, nothing less,” said Baldwin.

Not present, however, was Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, the nation's most powerful openly gay elected official. Earlier, Frank said he disagreed with the timing of the legislation, adding that passage was undoable politically.

“It's not anything that's achievable in the near term,” Frank told gay weekly The Washington Blade.

“I think getting [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], a repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' and full domestic partner benefits for federal employees will take up all of what we can do and maybe more in this Congress.”