Christian and conservative leaders applauded the move.
The party-line move by the House Bipartisan Leadership Advisory Group came two weeks after President Obama ordered the Department of Justice to stop defending the act, which was signed into law in 1996 and which defines marriage for federal purposes as between one man and one woman. A handful of federal lawsuits against it are pending.
House Speaker John Boehner released a brief statement saying the House general counsel "has been directed to initiate a legal defense" of the law, which passed in '96 by margins of 84-15 in the Senate and 342-67 in the House and was signed by President Clinton. The move by the advisory group does not require approval by the full House.
The decision by Obama was highly unusual; presidents often defend laws in court that they personally oppose. Obama said he believes the law is unconstitutional. Although a court ruled it unconstitutional in 2010, other federal courts have upheld it.
"This action by the House will ensure that this law's constitutionality is decided by the courts, rather than by the President unilaterally," Boehner said. Joining Boehner in voting to defend the law were Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, all three Republicans. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the two Democrats, voted against House action.
If the lawsuits are successful, then the federal government, for the first time, would be forced to recognize the "gay marriages" of states such as Massachusetts and to grant federal benefits to same-sex couples. Eventually, all 50 states could be forced to recognize such "marriages."
"I'm delighted that the House leadership is going to take up the defense of DOMA," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press. "It's always better to have an advocate who believes in the case making your arguments rather than an Obama administration flunky going through the motions."
Land and others had been critical of the way the Justice Department was defending the law, saying the attorneys weren't using the best arguments in its defense. For instance, many courts have upheld traditional marriage laws on the basis that they're needed to encourage mother-father homes and "responsible" procreation. The Justice Department, though, refused to use those arguments.
"I am grateful the House will initiate a vigorous defense of the Defense of Marriage Act," said Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. "The principles upon which DOMA was overwhelmingly passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Clinton remain core values for the majority of Americans. I urge all Southern Baptists to remain diligent in prayer for our nation."
Technically, the current lawsuits only target half of the Defense of Marriage Act -- the part that defines marriage in federal law. The other half of DOMA gives states the option of not recognizing another state's "gay marriages." Obama, though, has made clear he opposes the law, and a March 2 story in The Los Angeles Times said homosexual groups are ready to target the entire law if they win the current cases. If the entire act is overruled, then pro-traditional marriage laws on the state level likely would be overturned -- forcing all 50 states to recognize "gay marriage."
"I applaud the House of Representatives for standing in the gap to defend traditional marriage," said Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee. "Historically, human procreation within the context of a loving nuclear family has formed the basis of a stable society. This creational pattern occurs in the union of a man and a woman in marriage, and is a central tenet in all religions. It has been the norm across all generations. It has been the ideal in virtually all cultures. I pray it will remain so in our beloved nation."
Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Brian Raum said the American people "deserve to have their laws defended" and that the "House has stepped up to the plate where the Department of Justice has shirked its responsibility." The organization supports the law.
Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group, said Obama's lack of defense may be for the best.
"DOMA deserves better than the half-hearted defense it has been getting so far," Feulner wrote in a Townhall.com column. "Now Congress can finally put the case in the hands of legal counsel who can ensure that the law of the land gets the full-throated support it should have had all along."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. To read a Q&A about the Defense of Marriage Act, visit http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=34811.
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