WASHINGTON –– The Obama administration’s decision to no longer support the federal Defense of Marriage Act is an “alarming and grave injustice,” said New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Our nation and government have the duty to recognize and protect marriage, not tamper with and redefine it, nor to caricature the deeply held beliefs of so many citizens as ‘discrimination,'” he said in a March 3 statement.

The archbishop’s comments were in response to a Feb. 23 announcement that President Barack Obama had instructed the Department of Justice to stop defending the federal law passed by Congress and signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton.

The Defense of Marriage Act says the federal government defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and that no state must recognize a same-sex marriage from another state.

A day after Archbishop Dolan’s statement, other Catholic bishops joined Protestant and Sikh religious leaders in urging the U.S. House of Representatives to fight for the federal marriage law.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Feb. 23 that although the administration has defended the law in some federal courts, it will no longer continue to do so in cases pending in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Unlike in the previous cases, said Holder, the 2nd Circuit “has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated.”

Holder’s statement said Obama “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.”

Archbishop Dolan disagreed, saying the federal law “does not single out people based on sexual ‘orientation’ or inclination. Every person deserves to be treated with justice, compassion, and respect, a proposition of natural law and American law that we as Catholics vigorously promote. Unjust discrimination against any person is always wrong.”

He said the marriage law was not “unjust discrimination” but instead, legislation that “merely affirms and protects the time-tested and unalterable meaning of marriage.”

“The suggestion that this definition amounts to ‘discrimination’ is grossly false and represents an affront to millions of citizens in this country,” he added.

“On behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I express my deep disappointment over the administration’s recent decision,” he said, noting that he has written to the president to express his concerns in separate correspondence.

Archbishop Dolan said he prays that the president and the Justice Department “may yet make the right choice to carry out their constitutional responsibility, defending the irreplaceable institution of marriage, and in so doing protect the future generations of our children.”

The administration’s decision “does not stand the test of common sense. It is hardly ‘discrimination’ to say that a husband and a wife have a unique and singular relationship that two persons of the same sex – or any unmarried persons – simply do not and cannot have,” the archbishop said.

“Nor is it ‘discrimination’ to believe that the union of husband and wife has a distinctive and exclusive significance worthy of promotion and protection by the state,” he continued. “It is not ‘discrimination’ to say that having both a mother and a father matters to and benefits a child. Nor is it ‘discrimination’ to say that the state has more than zero interest in ensuring that children will be intimately connected with and raised by their mother and father.

“Protecting the definition of marriage is not merely permissible, but actually necessary as a matter of justice,” he added.

In a March 3 letter to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Catholic, Protestant and Sikh religious leaders said they were “very troubled” by Obama’s decision to “no longer protect the traditional definition of marriage and defend existing law.”

They asked that “the House intervene as a party in all cases where DOMA is challenged, not merely to file amicus curiae briefs,” noting that, although intervention “would be unusual, it would be both lawful and warranted under our current legal system and political context.”

Signers of the letter to Boehner included Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Defense of Marriage; the Rev. Leith Anderson, president, National Association of Evangelicals; Glenn C. Burris, Jr., president, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel; Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America; the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and Tarunjit Singh Butalia, secretary-general of the World Sikh Council – America Region.

In a March 4 column in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Voice, Bishop Cordelione called the Obama administration’s decision “an egregious violation of separation of powers.”

“It is a curious irony that in this moment of history, when people in a number of countries in the Middle East are agitating for change from dictatorship to democracy, here in our own country, the oldest democracy with a written constitution in the world, there is a movement of the ruling class toward taking more and more power into its own hands,” he wrote. “The flashpoint for this movement? The hot-button issue of our day: marriage.”

“Regardless of one’s position on the marriage issue, these and so many other moves by our public officials should give cause for concern about the fate of democracy in our country,” Bishop Cordileone said.

“I urge all of our people to inform themselves of the facts,” he continued, “to inform their consciences from the natural moral law and church teaching – understanding that marriage is not discrimination against anyone, but benefits everyone and that we must treat those who disagree with us on this issue with respect and compassion – and then to take action by speaking truth to power, advocating for this fundamental good of our society and voting their conscience at the ballot box.”