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's)Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against."
The Justice Department had defended the act in court until now.
"Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed" the Defense of Marriage Act, Holder said in a statement. 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that the Supreme Court has ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are unconstitutional and that Congress has repealed the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.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 House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, 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.
The attorney general said the Justice Department had defended the law in court until now because the government was able to advance reasonable arguments for the law based on a less strict standard.
At a December news conference, in response to a reporters' question, Obama revealed that his position on gay marriage is "constantly evolving." He has opposed such marriages and supported instead civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. The president said such civil unions are his baseline - at this point, as he put it.
"This is something that we're going to continue to debate, and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward," he said.