Justice Department Won’t Defend Federal Same Sex Marriage Ban

It's a major reversal in the administration's previously tentative posturing.

By Shani O. Hilton Feb 23, 2011

In a surprising turn of events today, the Department of Justice announced, via a statement from Attorney General Eric Holder, that it would no longer continue to defend the 15-year-old Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The decision comes after President Barack Obama found Section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, unconstitutional:

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny. The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases.

Michael Cole-Schwartz at the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights advocacy organization, says the decision to increase scrutiny of laws that affect people based on sexual orientation is important.

It matters that the Obama Administration has taken a "clear position that laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation are immediately suspect and subject to review," he says, adding that this decision has implications that extend beyond DOMA.

While it remains unclear whether this move signals a step toward gay rights, or if it’s just due diligence on the part of the DOJ, Cole-Schwartz suggests it’s the former.

"The president has said his position on marriage is evolving, and LGBT people are hoping that evolution happens quickly," he says. "The administration’s decision not to defend DOMA is a tremendous step for same-sex couples."

Read more Colorlines.com coverage on how crucial race is to the fight over same-sex marriage.