WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ordered his administration on Wednesday to stop defending the constitutionality of a federal law that bans recognition of gay marriage, a policy reversal that could have major implications for the rights and benefits of gay couples and reignite an emotional debate for the 2012 presidential campaign.
Obama still is "grappling" with his personal views on whether gays should be allowed to marry but has long opposed the federal law as unnecessary and unfair, said spokesman Jay Carney.
First word of the change came not from the White House but from the Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Obama had concluded the 15-year-old Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was legally indefensible.
The decision was immediately welcomed by gay rights organizations and vilified by those on the other side. Some Democrats in Congress praised the decision, while it drew criticism from some Republicans and the office of their leader, House Speaker John Boehner, all a preview of coming political debate over the latest development in the long-running national conversation about gay rights.
The outcome of that debate could have enormous impact because federal laws and regulations confer more than a thousand rights or benefits on those who are married, most involving taxpayer money — Social Security survivors' benefits, family and medical leave, equal compensation as federal employees and immigration rights.
"Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed DOMA," Holder said in a statement explaining the decision.
As well, the social landscape has changed.
Since the law was passed in 1996, five states and the District of Columbia have approved gay marriage, and others allow civil unions. An Associated Press-National Constitution Center Poll conducted in August found 52 percent of Americans saying the federal government should give legal recognition to marriages between couples of the same sex.
Thirty states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed same-sex civil unions into law Wednesday, granting gay and lesbian couples the same state rights as married partners, beginning Jan. 1.