The Obama administration on Wednesday reversed its policy and will no longer defend the constitutionality of a U.S. law barring recognition of homosexual marriages. The White House said President Barack Obama’s personal views on the matter are still evolving.
The U.S. Justice Department announced that it will stop defending in court a federal law that defines marriage as being between only a man and a woman.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the president has concluded that the administration cannot continue to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.
The president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said Obama has consistently opposed the law, believing it is unnecessary and unfair. Carney said the decision, though, was based on legal questions about the law’s constitutionality.
"Distinct from that is the decision announced today, which was brought on by a court-imposed deadline by the Second Circuit, that required a decision by the administration about whether or not this case should require heightened scrutiny," said Carney.
In a written statement, Holder said much of the U.S. legal landscape has changed since the Defense of Marriage Act was passed 15 years ago. Since then, the Supreme Court has ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are unconstitutional, and Congress recently repealed the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy that bars openly gay and lesbian members of the military from serving in the armed forces.
Carney said Obama has directed the attorney general not to defend the law in other court cases. But he said the administration will enforce the law as long as it remains in effect.
The top Republican in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, said, "While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending," the president is "stirring up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation."
Carney responded that Obama had no choice about when to address this issue, and that he remains focused on the economy.
"We are now anticipating that this will move to the courts and the courts will decide. And meanwhile, we will continue to focus on job creation and economic growth and winning the future," said Carney.
Carney said the president made his decision on legal grounds, but that his personal view on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed remains undecided, as Obama told reporters in December.
"What I’ve said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them [i.e., homosexual couples] the protections and the legal rights that married couples have," said Obama. "And I think that is the right thing to do. But I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think is something that we’re going to continue to debate, and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward."
The executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force called the administration’s announcement "a tremendous step toward recognizing our common humanity and ending an egregious injustice."
The National Organization for Marriage recently accused the Obama administration’s Justice Department of failing to vigorously defend the Defense of Marriage Act.