Q. OK, first off, what is the Defense of Marriage Act?
A. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It defined marriage strictly as being between a man and a woman, and it prohibited the federal government from recognizing gay marriages. DOMA also gave states the right to determine their own stances on gay marriage.
Q. How else does DOMA affect same-sex couples?
A. DOMA has been used by the federal government to deny gay couples a whole host of benefits that heterosexual couples have access to, including federal health care, Social Security, and pension and tax benefits. Same-sex couples can't file joint income-tax returns or take family and medical leave to care for their partner. Long-term couples can also expect to pay estate taxes if their partner dies, something heterosexual couples aren't faced with.
Q. What has President Obama's stance been on this issue all along?
A. In the past, Obama has said he is opposed to gay marriages but in favor of civil unions. Recently, he said publicly that his feelings on the topic are "constantly evolving."
Since taking office, his administration defended and enforced DOMA . . . until Wednesday, when Attorney General Eric Holder said that Obama had determined it was legally indefensible.
Q. What are people saying about the decision?
A. James Esseks, of the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR that Obama's move "will affect every nook and cranny of gay rights" and had created "a new world."
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and long-rumored 2012 GOP presidential hopeful, told the website PoliticsPA that Obama's decision is "an affront to the will of the people," and "Yet another example of our president's effort to erode the very traditions that have made our country the greatest nation in the world."
Q. Is all of this a really long way of saying that gay couples are free to get married anywhere and have the same benefits as straight couples?
A. In a word: no. Holder said DOMA will still be enforced unless and until the Supreme Court makes a final ruling. He also said the Justice Department would notify federal courts in New York and Connecticut, which are hearing challenges to the law, about the change. But even if DOMA were eliminated, it would not force states to recognize gay marriages.
Q. Which states do recognize gay marriages?
A. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Same-sex marriages are also legal in the District of Columbia. Yesterday, the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill allowing same-sex marriages.
Q. Is this the last I'll hear about this issue?
A. Not a chance.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.