By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican in the House of Representatives said on Friday he will seek to do what the Obama administration no longer does -- defend a 15-year-old federal law against same-sex marriage.
Speaker John Boehner said he disagrees with President Barack Obama's recent determination that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, and will move to have the office of the House General Counsel defend it.
"The constitutionality of this law should be determined by the courts -- not by the president unilaterally," Boehner said in a statement.
The administration last month, in a sudden reversal, said it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by then-Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration now agrees with a U.S. judge in Boston who ruled in 2010 that banning gay marriages was unconstitutional.
Previously, the Obama administration had appealed, saying it was obligated to defend U.S. laws.
The law defines marriage as a compact between a man and a woman and prohibits same-sex couples from receiving marriage-based federal benefits like Social Security survivor benefits, health benefits and the right to file taxes jointly.
Boehner said he will convene a meeting of the Republican-led, five-member House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to initiate action to defend the law.
Under House rules, the group has the authority to instruct the non-partisan office of the House General Counsel to take legal action on behalf of the House.
"It is regrettable that the Obama administration has opened this divisive issue at a time when Americans want their leaders to focus on jobs and the challenges facing our economy," Boehner said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Obama's decision "a bold step forward for civil rights and equality" and called Boehner's response to it "a distraction from our most pressing challenges."
"Speaker Boehner should follow his own advice and work with Democrats to create jobs, strengthen the middle class and responsibly reduce the deficit," Pelosi said.
While gay and civil rights activists have denounced the law, many conservative and religious groups have hailed it.
Gay marriage has been legalized in just five of the 50 states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont -- along with the District of Columbia.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Todd Eastham)