In a major policy reversal, US President Barack Obama’s administration said on Wednesday it would no longer defend the constitutionality of a US law banning recognition of same-sex marriage.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said Obama has concluded that the administration cannot defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
He said that the congressional debate during the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act “contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships — precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus” the US Constitution is designed to guard against.
The Department of Justice had defended the act in court until now.
The move quickly drew praise from some Democrats in Congress, but a sharp response from the spokesman for Republican John Boehner, the leader of the House of Representatives.
“While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, 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 Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel.
Gay groups, which had long pressured the administration to take a step like this, were pleased.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called the policy change “a tremendous step toward recognizing our common humanity and -ending an egregious injustice against thousands of loving, committed couples who simply want the protections, rights and responsibilities afforded other married couples. We thank the Obama administration.”
Obama’s move may position him politically at the forefront of rising public support for gay marriage. Polling results can vary rather significantly depending on what words are used to describe gay marriage, but there is a gradual trend in public opinion toward more acceptance of gay marriage.
An Associated Press-National Constitution Center Poll conducted last August found 52 percent of Americans saying the federal government should give legal -recognition to marriages between couples of the same sex, while 46 percent said it should not. In polling by ABC News and the Washington Post, support for the legalization of gay marriage has climbed from 37 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in February last year.
Holder’s statement said: “Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed” the Defense of Marriage Act.
He said 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 on gays serving in the armed forces.
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.”
Also on Wednesday, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie signed same-sex civil unions into law, calling it “a triumph for everyone” that gay and lesbian couples will have the same state rights as married partners.
Civil unions would start on Jan. 1 next year, making Hawaii the seventh state to permit civil unions or similar legal recognitions for gay couples. Five other states and Washington allow same-sex marriage.