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Justice Will No Longer Defend Marriage Law

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In a victory for the Gay Rights Movement, the Justice Department has told Congress it can no longer defend a federal law that prohibits same-sex marriage. The White House had long struggled with how to handle the sensitive issue until today, when it said the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Since the start of the Obama administration, advocates for gay rights have been pushing the government to throw the federal same-sex marriage law overboard. Instead, in case after case, the Justice Department defended the law in court, often, while lawyers held their noses.

Mr. Obama recently told reporters that his views on gay marriage are evolving. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Obama's position on the law had never changed.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (Press Secretary, White House): The president's position on the Defense of Marriage Act has been consistent. He has long opposed it as unnecessary and unfair.

JOHNSON: But declaring the law unconstitutional was another matter entirely. The Justice Department generally has to defend federal laws, unless it finds there's no reasonable basis to support them in court. What changed this time around?

Justice sources say it was upcoming deadlines in two gay marriage lawsuits in New York and Connecticut. There was no legal precedent in those courts to support the 15-year-old Defense of Marriage Act as constitutional. So Mr. Obama decided, with advice from his attorney general, that now was the time to move.

The decision delighted Richard Socarides. He worked on gay rights issues in the Clinton White House.

Mr. RICHARD SOCARIDES (President, Equality Matters): It is a very significant and extremely welcome development, for which the president deserves a lot of credit.

JOHNSON: That bold action isn't going over so well in some quarters. Republican House Speaker John Boehner put out a statement asking why the White House was stirring up divisive social issues instead of creating jobs.

Ed Whelan used to work in the Bush Justice Department, and he says Mr. Obama is playing a political game with the same-sex marriage law.

Mr. ED WHELAN (President, Ethics and Public Policy Center): There are lots of reasonable arguments to be offered in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act. And the Obama administration, for purely political reasons, has simply abandoned those arguments.

JOHNSON: The legal fights that Whelan describes are far from over. Members of Congress, who voted to pass the law 15 years ago, can pick another set of lawyers to defend it in court. And the White House says it will enforce the Defense of Marriage Act when it comes to executive branch functions, until Congress repeals the law or a federal court throws it out.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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