Attorney General Eric Holder informed Congress yesterday that President Obama had ordered the Department of Justice to cease all efforts to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. The announcement came without public warning, even as the administration was dealing with an international crisis in Libya and a political showdown over unions in Wisconsin.

The Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] emerged in 1996 as at least one state — Hawaii — indicated the very real possibility that it would vote to approve same-sex marriage. The Act makes clear that no state can require any other state to recognize a same-sex marriage, and that the federal government is prohibited from extending marital benefits to same-sex couples. The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 85 to 14. In the House of Representatives, the vote was 342 to 67. Faced with such overwhelming congressional support, President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law.

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