By LINDA DEUTSCH and LISA LEFF, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES -- Gay rights groups expressed dismay with the Obama administration Friday over its championing of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law the president pledged to try to repeal while on the campaign trail.
The government filed a motion late Thursday to dismiss the case of Arthur Smelt and Christopher Hammer, who are challenging the 1996 federal act. The law prevents couples in states that recognize same-sex unions from securing Social Security spousal benefits, filing joint taxes and other federal rights of marriage.
U.S. Department of Justice lawyers argued that the act - known informally as DOMA - is constitutional and contended that awarding federal marriage benefits to gays would infringe on the rights of taxpayers in the 30 states that specifically prohibit same-sex marriages.
"The president made very explicit and emphatic campaign promises that he opposes DOMA and would provide leadership calling on Congress to repeal it," said Jennifer Pizer, marriage project director for Lambda Legal. "This brief is not consistent with that promise."
Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Friday that the department is abiding by its standard practice of defending existing law and that the filing doesn't mean Obama has changed his mind about wanting to see gay couples win federal recognition.
"Until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system," Schmaler said.
More than four months into his first term, Obama has been under growing pressure from gay rights activists who supported his candidacy to move forward on repealing DOMA and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevents gays from serving openly in the military.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights lobbying group based in Washington, called on Obama to reassure his supporters by sending Congress a bill to lift the federal marriage law.
"The Administration apparently determined that it had a duty to defend DOMA in the courts. The President has just as strong a duty to put his principles into action," Solmonese said in a statement.
In the papers, Justice Department lawyers said federal court was not the right venue to tackle legal questions raised by Hammer and Smelt, who got married in California last year during the five-month window in which the state sanctioned same-sex unions.
Lambda Legal's Pizer said the government's stance in some ways marks an improvement from Justice Department positions taken on the Defense of Marriage Act when George W. Bush was president.
The brief acknowledges that gay couples who tie the knot in the six states where same-sex marriages are permitted are legally married and does not cite the oft-used argument that children fare better in households headed by a married man and woman, Pizer said.
At the same time, it repeated several arguments made under Bush, including the argument that a union between a man and a woman is "the traditional, and universally recognized, version of marriage."
The Obama administration will have more opportunities in coming weeks to weigh in on the subject. Another challenge to DOMA brought on behalf of married couples in Massachusetts and a lawsuit seeking to overturn California's gay marriage ban under the U.S. Constitution are making their way through the courts.
Leff reported from San Francisco.