By JoAnne Allen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives will defend a federal law against same-sex marriage after the Obama administration deemed the act unconstitutional and stopped trying to uphold it, House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday.
The Republican-led, five-member House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, convened by Boehner, voted to instruct in-house lawyers to take legal action to defend the 15-year-old law on behalf of the House.
"The House General Counsel has been directed to initiate a legal defense of this law," Boehner said in a statement.
"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.
President Barack Obama's administration, in a sudden reversal, said last month it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, signed into law in 1996 by then-Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration now agreed with a 2010 federal court ruling that banning gay marriages was unconstitutional.
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.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said took a step forward for civil rights when he decided the Justice Department would no longer argue to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
"DOMA is discriminatory; it's unfair and indefensible," Pelosi said in a statement. "The House should not be in the business of defending an unconstitutional statute that is neither rational nor serves any governmental interest."
While gay and civil rights activists have denounced the law, many conservative and religious groups have hailed it.
Gay marriage is legal in just five of the 50 states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont -- along with the District of Columbia.
(Writing by JoAnne Allen; Editing by Peter Cooney)