Boehner's announcement came a day after Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land and other religious leaders urged him to lead the House of Representatives to intervene in federal courts on behalf of the law, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Department of Justice announced Feb. 23 the president had ordered it not to defend the law.
Barely two months into his role as speaker, Boehner said he would convene a meeting of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which has the authority to direct the House general counsel's office to act in court on behalf of the chamber. The group is made up of the House's speaker, majority leader, majority whip, minority leader and minority whip.
"The constitutionality of this law should be determined by the courts -- not by the president unilaterally -- and this action by the House will ensure the matter is addressed in a manner consistent with our Constitution," Boehner said in a written statement announcing his decision.
In a March 3 letter, six religious leaders joined Land, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in urging Boehner and the House not just to file friend-of-the-court briefs but to "intervene as a party in all cases where DOMA is challenged."
DOMA, which was approved by huge majorities in both houses of Congress, defines marriage in federal law as only between a man and a woman and bars the federal government from recognizing "same-sex marriages." The law also empowers states to refuse to recognize "gay marriages" from other states. Although Obama opposes the entire law, the current lawsuits target only the section dealing with federal recognition.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) had previously defended the law in federal court during the Obama presidency, although DOMA's advocates criticized its effort as weak. DOJ appealed a federal judge's 2010 ruling that the law was unconstitutional.
On Feb. 23, however, DOJ announced the president believes the law is unconstitutional and had ordered it no longer to defend DOMA. Such a step by a president is highly unusual.
If the entire law is struck down, all 50 states likely would be required to recognize "same-sex marriage." DOMA supporters warn the legalization of "gay marriage" would have a widespread impact on society, affecting the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the religious liberty of private businesses and curriculum in elementary schools.
Land and the other leaders said Obama's decision not to defend DOMA "has undermined the rule of law and the separation of powers. The House has the authority to rectify this lapse in judgment."
They appealed to Boehner to "lead the House to take the important, necessary step to protect American law, American families, and American values by defending DOMA and protecting the true meaning of marriage."
"While the traditional definition of marriage has faced legal and popular challenges of late, a clear majority of Americans oppose same-sex 'marriage' and have expressed their support of marriage as the union of one man and one woman in all 31 state referenda and initiatives where the issue has been raised," the letter said. "The definition of marriage is one of the central questions facing our society today. The American people do not want their wishes being overruled by the judiciary -- or the executive."
The Obama administration, the letter said, had "undermined the rule of law and the separation of powers."
Joining Land in signing the letter were Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Robert Duncan, archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America; Glenn Burris, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel; Tarunjit Singh, Secretary General of the World Sikh Council-America Region, and two Roman Catholic representatives: Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Atlanta, Ga., and chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Salvatore Cordileone, bishop of Oakland, Calif., and chairman of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee on the Defense of Marriage.
The roll call votes on DOMA in 1996 were 84-15 in the Senate and 342-67 in the House. President Clinton signed it into law.
The letter to Boehner is available online at http://erlc.com/article/religious-leaders-urge-house-to-defend-doma/.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.
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