REUTERS - President Barack Obama has determined that a federal law that barred gay marriages was unconstitutional and told government lawyers to stop defending it in court, the U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday, a move that will likely anger some conservative voters.
A U.S. judge had ruled that a key provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) banning gay marriages was unconstitutional, but the administration had appealed, stating that it was obligated to defend federal laws when challenged.
The hot-button issue of same-sex marriage is the focus of a number of judicial and political battles. It is banned in most of the nation and legal only in the District of Columbia and five states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont, although some states allow same-sex civil unions.
Obama decided that provision was unconstitutional and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder, who conducted a review of the law and gave him a recommendation, to stop defending it in federal court.
"While both the wisdom and the legality of Section 3 of DOMA will continue to be the subject of both extensive litigation and public debate, this administration will no longer assert its constitutionality in court," Holder said in a statement.
The judge in Boston had found that the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, effectively barring gay marriages, violated the U.S. Constitution's provisions granting equal protection under the law and protecting states' rights.
Holder did say that the administration would continue to enforce the law until it was either repealed or struck down.
The decision by Obama won immediate praise from gay rights groups who traditionally backed him but were angry that his administration was defending the law.