The Obama administration came out strongly Thursday against California's ban on same-sex marriage and, by extension, implicated similar bans in 37 states.
In a brief to the Supreme Court, which will hear two landmark same-sex marriage cases in late March, the Justice Department argued that gay and lesbian couples should have the same right to marry as heterosexuals.
"The government seeks to vindicate the defining constitutional ideal of equal treatment under the law," Attorney General Eric Holder said.
"Throughout history," he said, "we have seen the unjust consequences of decisions and policies rooted in discrimination."
The brief marks the first time the administration has opposed any state ban on gay marriage. Although it was aimed at the Proposition 8 voter initiative passed in California in 2008, it put the administration squarely against other bans by urging the court to use a difficult legal standard that none is likely to meet.
In particular, the brief implicated the other states that, like California, allow domestic partnerships or civil unions: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island.
"Proposition 8's denial of marriage to same-sex couples, particularly where California at the same time grants same-sex partners all the substantive rights of marriage, violates equal protection," the brief states.
The court filing completes President Obama's evolution on gay marriage and puts his administration squarely on the side of gay-rights groups and the nine states where same-sex marriage is legal.
The president opposed California's ban during his 2008 campaign but refused to endorse gay marriage. He made that endorsement during last year's campaign but said the issue should be decided by the states.
Then, in this year's inaugural address, Obama equated gay rights to past battles on behalf of women and African Americans by mentioning Stonewall, the New York City bar that was the site of 1969's historic gay rights riots. "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," Obama said.
The action was heralded by groups seeking to legalize same-sex marriage. "President Obama and the solicitor general have taken another historic step forward, consistent with the great civil rights battles of our nation's history," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.
Conservative groups criticized the decision, particularly because Obama once said it should be left to the states. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the president was "putting allegiance to extreme liberal social policies ahead of constitutional principle."
The high court has reserved two days in late March to consider the California ban and the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Both have been declared unconstitutional by lower courts.
Proposition 8 was approved by California voters in 2008. A ruling overturning the ban would open the floodgates to thousands of new same-sex marriages there. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. It has blocked federal benefits from married same-sex couples in Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.
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