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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Obama drops defense of law against gay marriage

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama has ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and woman, according to a statement Wednesday from Attorney General Eric Holder.
"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.
The key provision in the law "fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional."
"Given that conclusion, the president has instructed the (Justice Department) not to defend the statute" in two pending cases in New York, Holder said. "I fully concur with the president's determination."
Obama has previously expressed his personal opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act but had never stated an opinion relating to its constitutionality.
The administration had a March 11 deadline to respond to two lawsuits against the measure in New York. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- which includes New York -- is the only federal circuit to have never decided the basic legal question of whether a law discriminates against gays and lesbians.
Republicans immediately ripped the decision, calling it a distraction at a time when the focus needs to be on the economy.
"While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spendingm the president will have to explain why he thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration had to make a decision before the court-imposed deadline.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, praised the decision, calling it a key step forward in the push for equal rights for gays and lesbians.
The administration's decision "is a victory for civil rights, fairness, and equality," Pelosi said. "I commend (Obama) for taking this bold step forward to ensure the federal government is no longer in the business of defending an indefensible statute."
The Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996 by the GOP-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and says states cannot be forced to recognize such marriages from other states.
In July, a federal judge in Massachusetts became the first to rule the law unconstituational. U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro said that "irrational prejudice plainly never constitutes a legitimate government interest."
Carney said Wednesday the administration will continue to enforce the law.


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