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The Obama administration says a federal law that bans recognition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and has directed the Justice Department not to defend the law anymore in court cases across the country. The decision announced Wednesday represents a big victory for gay rights activists.
Obama's Justice Department has been arguing to preserve the Defense of Marriage Act for two years in courts all over the nation. Government lawyers said they were acting out of a sense of legal precedent, not moral obligation. Everything changed Wednesday when Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that Obama had determined that the administration can no longer defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
"After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the president has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny," Holder said in a statement released Wednesday. At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said Obama himself is still "grappling" with his personal view of gay marriage but has always personally opposed the Defense of Marriage Act as "unnecessary and unfair."
From now on, the Justice Department will no longer fight to support the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in court. But the government will continue to enforce the law across the executive branch unless Congress repeals it or a federal judge throws it out. "Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed" the Defense of Marriage Act, Holder said in a statement. He noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are unconstitutional and that Congress has repealed the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Holder wrote to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) that Obama has concluded the Defense of Marriage Act fails to meet a rigorous standard under which courts view with suspicion any laws targeting minority groups who have suffered a history of discrimination. The attorney general said the Justice Department had defended the law in court until now because the government was able to advance reasonable arguments for the law based on a less strict standard.