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Obama admin will no longer defend federal marriage act in court

From NBC's Pete Williams
In a major reversal, the Obama administration has notified Congress that it will no longer defend the federal law that says marriage can exist only between a man and a woman.

Attorney General Eric Holder says he has recommended, and the president has agreed, that the law unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples who are legally married but whose status is not recognized by the federal government.

"Given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination," Holder wrote in a statement, the administration has concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation must be subject to a higher constitutional standard than ordinary laws. And the federal Defense of Marriage Act does not meet that test, he says.

Read the full statement here.

Here's the immediate practical effect of this change:

-The Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect unless a federal court strikes it down or Congress repeals it.

-The government will stop defending the law in two court cases, in New York and Connecticut, where the law has been challenged, and in any other cases challenging the law.

-If the law is to be defended, members of Congress would have to step up and join those lawsuits.

In the statement, Holder argued that the legal landscape has changed since the Defense of Marriage Act was passed 15 years ago and signed into law by President Clinton. He mentioned the Supreme Court's ruling striking down criminal laws against homosexuality, the repeal of the military's Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy, and the fact that several lower courts have found the DOMA law unconstitutional.