Moments ago, in a sharp reversal of policy, the Obama administration announced that it believes that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages — is unconstitutional and will ask the Justice Department to stop defending the law. In a press release announcing the change, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also argues that laws regarding sexual orientation should be subject to a higher level of review:
Section 3 of DOMA has now been challenged in the Second Circuit, however, which has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated. In these cases, the Administration faces for the first time the question of whether laws regarding sexual orientation are subject to the more permissive standard of review or whether a more rigorous standard, under which laws targeting minority groups with a history of discrimination are viewed with suspicion by the courts, should apply.
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. I fully concur with the President’s determination.
Consequently, the Department will not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in the Second Circuit. We will, however, remain parties to the cases and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation.
Back in July, a Federal District Court in Boston ruled that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional because it interferes with the traditional state right to define marriage and forces the state to “violate the equal protection rights of its citizens.” The decision was composed of two separate challenges, one brought by the state of Massachusetts and the other by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) “on behalf of eight married couples and three surviving spouses from Massachusetts” who have been denied federal benefits available to heterosexual married couples. In November 2010, plaintiffs also filed two “new lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in jurisdictions without precedent on whether sexual-orientation classifications are subject to rational basis review or whether they must satisfy some form of heightened scrutiny.”
The Obama administration announced its intention to defend DOMA in October of 2010 and in January filed a brief arguing that “DOMA is rationally related to legitimate governmental interests.” The government maintained that Congress enacted the law during an era of upheaval to maintain “uniformity on the federal level” and allow states the flexibility to expand the definition of marriage as they see fit.
Today’s decision is consistent with President Obama’s opposition to DOMA during the presidential campaign. “I support the full and unqualified repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. While some say we should repeal only part of the law, I believe we should get rid of that statute altogether,” Obama said in November of 2007.
Press Secretary Jay Carney stressed that the two lawsuits filed in November of 2010 pushed the administration to reach its decision. He is why:
Unlike previous challenges, the new lawsuits were filed in districts covered by the appeals court in New York — one of the only circuits with no modern precedent saying how to evaluate claims that a law discriminates against gay people.
That means that the administration, for the first time, may be required to take a clear stand on politically explosive questions like whether gay men and lesbians have been unfairly stigmatized, are politically powerful, and can choose to change their sexual orientation.