State Attorney General Martha Coakley praised the Obama administration's decision Wednesday to no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of gay marriage, calling it an "important victory" for same-sex couples.
Coakley said the unusual decision affirms Massachusetts' first-in-the-nation push to allow gay couples to marry. She said the decision will help ensure that all married couples enjoy the same rights and benefits under the law.
Coakley cautioned that the letter by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder leaves open the possibility that Congress could decide on its own to continue to defend the law in court.
In the letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Holder said the law was constitutionally indefensible because it violates the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Coakley said the state was preparing for a March 1 hearing before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That hearing was to give the court the chance to hear the Department of Justice's appeal of an earlier ruling by a single federal judge who sided with the state.
Coakley said she now expects the court to postpone that hearing until it becomes clear whether Congress will seek to continue the case.
The two rulings in July by U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro found the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, is unconstitutional because it interferes with a state's right to define marriage and denies married gay couples an array of federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples.
The second of Tauro's rulings sided with the gay rights advocacy group GLAD in a parallel case to Coakley's.
On Wednesday, GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto called Holder's letter "extraordinarily significant," but said the group is prepared to continue to defend the rights of same-sex married couples.
"We are prepared to address head-on whatever arguments Congress may make," Bonauto said.
Not everyone agreed with the decision.
Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute said his group will press Boehner to step in and continue the case. He faulted the Obama administration for offering a tepid defense of the law.
"The administration did a horrible job of defending DOMA in the appeal effort that took place last summer," he said.
Coakley disagreed, saying the Department of Justice mounted a vigorous defense at the time.
President Barack Obama has called for the repeal of DOMA.
Gay marriage has been legal in Massachusetts since 2004. Since then more than 15,000 same-sex couples have been married in the state.
The Obama administration's decision to back off their defense of the 1996 law was lauded by other public officials in Massachusetts.
Gov. Deval Patrick issued a written statement saying he was "tremendously heartened today by President Obama's decision to turn away from this divisive and unfair law."
"In Massachusetts, we believe that every person ought to be able to marry whomever they love, and we believe the rest of the country is moving forward in that direction, too," Patrick said.
Sen. John Kerry also welcomed the move.
"DOMA was unconstitutional in 1996, and it's unconstitutional today," Kerry said. "The Defense of Marriage Act has never been about defending marriage. It's been nothing more than an unconstitutional effort to deny same-sex couples basic rights and protections."
Passed by a Republican-led Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, DOMA defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and prevents the federal government from recognizing gay marriages.
Coakley said the law essentially forced the state to keep two sets of books for same-sex couples, one for state benefits allowed the couples and the other for federal benefits they were denied.
This program aired on February 24, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.