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Mr. Holder agreed. He told House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, in a Feb. 17 letter that he sided with gay-rights activists in the case known as McLaughlin v. Panetta.

The attorney general said that DOMA “cannot be constitutionally applied to same-sex couples who are legally married under state law.”

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which announced the lawsuit, called Mr. Holder’s shift a big boost.

“We are pleased that the attorney general has decided not to defend the constitutionality of DOMA in the military context, just as he has declined to defend it in other contexts,” said Aubrey Sarvis, network director. “We are also delighted that, for the first time, he has said that separate definitions that apply to military veterans are also unconstitutional. This is an important step for the McLaughlin plaintiffs.”

Mrs. Donnelly sees the letter as an attempt to create legal confusion.

“The administration has done more than muddle the situation,” she said. “They have sabotaged it in order to circumvent the intent of Congress and to advance the agenda of gay activist groups.

“In 2010, Defense Department officials promised Congress that the administration would enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, particularly with regard to military family benefits.”

Republicans’ point man

A Pentagon spokeswoman told The Washington Times: “We will continue to follow the law. Eligibility for a number of benefits is restricted by the application of several statutes, including the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Pentagon officials also said they would not create a special benefit category for unmarried gay partners because that would discriminate against unmarried straight couples.

Said the Pentagon’s November report on the repeal a month before Congress voted: “If, simultaneous with repeal, the Department of Defense creates a new category of unmarried dependent or family member reserved only for same-sex relationships, the Department of Defense itself would be creating a new inequity — between unmarried, committed same-sex couples and unmarried, committed opposite-sex couples. This new inequity, or the perception of it, runs counter to the military ethic of fair and equal treatment, and resentment at perceived inequities runs deep in military families.”

The report added that the Pentagon would continue to review national trends in employer benefits to married and unmarried gays and their partners.

With Mr. Holder refusing to defend DOMA in a second lawsuit, as it relates to the military, that job now falls to the House Republican majority to argue for Mr. Panetta, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs. The McLaughlin lawsuit also targets a federal law that limits veteran benefits to spouses of the opposite sex.

“The notification to Congress allows them to defend the statute,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre.

Republicans hired lawyer Paul Clement in April to defend DOMA in federal court after Mr. Holder abandoned its legal defense. Mr. Clement was solicitor general, the Justice Department’s No. 4 position, in the George W. Bush administration, and argued cases before the Supreme Court.

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