OBAMA ADMINISTRATION DROPS DOMA SUPPORT…. President Obama has long said he opposes the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), but his administration has nevertheless felt compelled to defend the law in court. It’s been the subject of considerable debate.

As of this afternoon, however, the debate changed considerably, with the the president showing some welcome and much-needed leadership.

President Obama has decided that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and has asked his Justice Department to stop defending it in court, the administration announced today.

“The President believes that DOMA is unconstitutional. They are no longer going to be defending the cases in the 1st and 2nd circuits,” a person briefed on the decision said.

The full statement from the Justice Department is online here. It includes this sentiment from Attorney General Eric Holder:

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny. The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases. I fully concur with the President’s determination.

Consequently, the Department will not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in the Second Circuit. We will, however, remain parties to the cases and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation. I have informed Members of Congress of this decision, so Members who wish to defend the statute may pursue that option.”

For those on the anti-gay right who’ve tried to label Obama “our first gay president,” today’s move probably won’t help matters.

But for millions of Americans seeking justice, the administration’s reversal may prove to be very helpful, indeed.

To clarify, today’s news does not mean DOMA is dead, at least not yet. It’s still federal law, and will remain on the books until Congress repeals it or the courts strike it down. But effective immediately, Obama’s Justice Department believes DOMA is unconstitutional and will no longer defend it against two ongoing legal challenges.

It’s another civil-rights breakthrough for the Obama administration.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.