WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has determined that a federal law that barred gay marriages was unconstitutional and told government lawyers to stop defending it, the Justice Department said on Wednesday, a major reversal that quickly angered conservatives.
A U.S. judge in Boston ruled in 2010 that a key provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) banning gay marriages was unconstitutional, but the Obama administration appealed, stating that it was obligated to defend U.S. laws.
The hot-button issue of same-sex marriage has been the focus of many judicial and political battles across the country. Gay marriage has only been legalized in the District of Columbia and five of the 50 states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Some states have allowed same-sex civil unions, which Obama has supported, but he has opposed full marriage rights for gays and lesbians. In December Obama said that his views about it were "constantly evolving" and "I struggle with this."
The decision by Obama to drop support for the law in federal courts came after he received a recommendation from Attorney General Eric Holder, who had conducted a detailed review over the past several weeks.
"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.
Holder did say that the administration would continue to enforce the law until it was either repealed or struck down.
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.
Some states have tried to extend marriage rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples to gay couples.
Obama's move drew a rebuke from conservative Republicans who argued that he could not pick and choose the laws to defend and some termed his decision partisan politics.
"Congress overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act, a Democratic president signed it into law, and the Justice Department has a duty to defend it," said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. "It is deeply disturbing to see politics further distort the Department of Justice."
Gay rights groups, which traditionally backed Obama but have been angry that his administration was defending the law, praised the reversal.
The decision is the second major victory for gay rights groups in recent months. In December, the Obama administration successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to repeal a ban that prevented gay people from openly serving in the military.
Obama has also expanded benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees including healthcare benefits, sick leave and family assistance services.
The move by the Obama administration came as supporters of gay marriage in California pressed a federal appeals court to lift its stay that prevented such unions. A California judge had ruled a statewide ban was unconstitutional.
Opponents of the ban, known as Proposition 8, said that Obama's move could help their case. "We think that will be very persuasive in the courts that are handling our case," said Ted Olson, a lawyer representing two same-sex couples in the case.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington and Dan Levine in San Francisco; Editing by Eric Walsh