WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama on Monday declared that the Defense of Marriage Act discriminates against gays and lesbians, even as his administration moved in federal court to defend the law.
In a court filing in Los Angeles, Justice Department lawyers urged a federal judge to throw out a case brought by a gay couple married in California.
"The Department of Justice has filed a response to a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, as it traditionally does when acts of Congress are challenged," the president said in a written statement. "This brief makes clear, however, that my administration believes that the act is discriminatory and should be repealed by Congress."
That did not satisfy leaders of the gay rights community.
"It is not enough to disavow this discriminatory law, and then wait for Congress or the courts to act," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "While they contend that is the (Department of Justice's) duty to defend an act of Congress, we contend that it is the administration's duty to defend every citizen from discrimination."
In his presidential campaign, Obama had strong backing from the gay community because of his promise to press for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The law, passed by Congress in 1996, denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages, thereby banning federal spousal benefits to those in such unions. It also allows states that prohibit same-sex marriages to deny recognition of such unions granted in other states.
The Justice Department Monday stressed the administration has not changed its views on the law.
"The Justice Department cannot pick and choose which federal laws it will defend based on any one administration's policy preferences," said department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. "The government's filing makes clear that the administration believes the Defense of Marriage Act is discriminatory and should be repealed."
The case challenging the law was brought by Californians Arthur Smelt and Christopher Hammer.
The government argues their case should be dismissed in part because they have no legal standing to bring the challenge.
"The plaintiffs have not shown that any other state has refused to recognize their California marriage, and they do not allege ... they have applied for and been denied any federal benefits" because of the law, the government said.
Federal courts to date have upheld the law, and said it is subject to "rational basis review."
In defending the existing law, the government argues, "This court should find that Congress could reasonably have concluded that there is a legitimate government interest in maintaining the status quo regarding the distribution of federal benefits in the face of serious and fluid policy differences in and and among the states. That there is now a debate taking place in this country about same-sex marriage does not make Congress's belief in this regard any less rational."