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Obama drops defense of anti-gay marriage law

WASHINGTON — In a major policy reversal, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama has concluded that the administration cannot defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. He noted that the congressional debate during 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 Constitution is designed to guard against.

The Justice Department 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 House Speaker.

“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. Ron 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 2010.

In a statement, Attorney General Holder said, “Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed” the Defense of Marriage Act. 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 Boehner 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.