IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Kate Varnum was at her Iowa home watching her newly adopted infant son when news flashed that Barack Obama had become the first sitting U.S. president to endorse equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
"I said, `Oh my gosh, I can't believe this is happening,'" said Varnum, 38, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that prompted the Iowa Supreme Court to make the state the first in the Midwest to legalize gay marriage in 2009. "We are absolutely thrilled. We still have a long way to go, but this is a huge step for Obama to take."
Americans reacted with joy, scorn and indifference to Obama's words in a television interview on Wednesday: "It is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married."
An African-American bishop in Philadelphia said Obama's position will make him think twice about supporting the president's re-election. A bed-and-breakfast owner marveled at what he described as the country's progress on gay rights in the past generation. A Florida business owner in a same-sex relationship worried more about the economy and wondered whether Obama's stance was a gimmick. A Kentucky businessman said the president was injecting himself into an issue that should be left to churches.
All the while, Americans, who polls show are evenly split on the issue, debated the human and societal implications of the statement – and the political fallout for Obama this election year.
In Cedar Rapids, Varnum said the president's words were so important because she and her spouse know what being married means for same-sex couples. They were recently able to adopt their son without the time and cost of having separate adoption hearings, and after Varnum lost her job last year, she and their son received health insurance coverage through her spouse's Iowa-based employer.
Varnum, an Obama supporter, had believed that he would eventually endorse gay marriage but not before the November election. She said the Iowa ruling that bears her family's name helped pave the way for greater acceptance of gay marriage and set the stage for Obama's change of heart.
"After Iowa was decided, a lot of people realized it's not just a coastal issue, it's not just a California or New Jersey issue," she said. "Families should be valued no matter where they live. The tide has turned."
But in a reminder of the issue's political divisiveness, three Iowa Supreme Court justices were ousted by voters after endorsing the court's unanimous ruling. The Iowa conservative activist who led the push for their removal, Bob Vander Plaats, said Wednesday that like them, Obama's decision would lead to him being rejected by voters who view marriage as between one man and one woman.
Bishop Leonard C. Goins, who presides over Chestnut Hill Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Philadelphia, flatly disagreed with Obama's gay marriage endorsement.
"He's wrong, he's in error, it's a mistake and it will hurt him," Goins said, adding that he's now in a quandary over whether he'll continue to support the president.
In Lexington, Ky., executive recruiter Joe Alexander said the federal government should leave the definition of marriage to churches. A Mormon who describes himself as a constitutional conservative says he believes "marriage is ordained by God between a man and a woman."
"Obama's proclamation, to me, just gives insight into his moral fiber. It's inappropriate for him to be speaking about it as president," Alexander said. "It's morally repugnant that the thought is expressed by the president, who should be a moral person. It's embarrassing."
Obama's words fired up others. Sitting at an outdoor cafe, 26-year-old West Hollywood resident Artie Calhoun said he's pleased Obama was bridging a generational gap for gay rights. While many young people seem comfortable with gay marriage, Calhoun says, people in older generations, including his father, struggle to understand homosexuality.
"If we have a voice in the White House who outwardly supports us, that absolutely helps understanding, 100 percent," he said.
In Richmond, Va., Jeff Wells was delighted at what he called a historic moment. The bed-and-breakfast owner said he thought Obama's prior reluctance to speak out on the issue was politically motivated, and he was "pleasantly surprised that he had the courage to" to back same-sex marriage.
Wells married his partner in Massachusetts in 2009, but their union isn't recognized in Virginia, where voters earlier approved an amendment to the state Constitution that defines marriage solely as the union of one man and one woman.
"When I was 25 years old, I never conceived that ... I would one day be married to a man I loved," Wells, 50, said.
Others reacted with skepticism.
Delsa Bernardo, who co-owns Yiya's Gourmet Cuban Bakery and Café in Miami with her girlfriend, backed Obama in 2008 but has since become disillusioned over economic issues. She said she's happy he's spoken out in support of gay marriage but wants to see what actions he takes to back up his words.
Bernardo said she is frustrated with the Obama administration over the difficulty in getting loans despite the federal bailouts he supported. She's had to pay out of pocket $1,600 this month for an industrial juicer and a glass case to display her popular red velvet cupcakes, as well as $4,000 for roof repairs because she can't get a loan. She hasn't paid herself in two weeks.
"I'm happy and I think it's about time our country does it," she said. "But I don't think it's all `Whoo-hoo!' I mean, who cares who you're sleeping with?"
AP reporters Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa.; Shaya Mohajer in Los Angeles; Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va.; Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami and Roger Alford in Frankfort, Ky. contributed to this report.
"I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman," Mitt Romney said.
"This is a major turning point in the history of American civil rights," said New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. "No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people - and I have no doubt that this will be no exception. The march of freedom that has sustained our country since the Revolution of 1776 continues, and no matter what setbacks may occur in a given state, freedom will triumph over fear and equality will prevail over exclusion. Today's announcement is a testament to the President's convictions, and it builds on the courageous stands that so many Americans have taken over the years on behalf of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, stretching back to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village."
"I applaud President Obama for announcing his support for marriage equality today," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) "For the first time in this nation's history, a sitting president has shown the courage and leadership to stand up for all American families by pledging to support the fundamental right of every person to marry the person they love, and to have that marriage fully respected. I commend President Obama for this brave and honest step. Those who seek to politicize civil rights for personal or political gain will certainly attack him, but the course toward marriage equality and justice is the correct and inevitable path."
"I'm thrilled!" longshot GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger told HuffPost, referring to Obama's embrace of marriage equality. Karger is the first openly gay Republican or Democrat to run for president. "The Karger pressure has worked," he joked. "Particularly after the defeat in North Carolina, we welcome him to the full equality position."
"I have been blessed to have a long and happy marriage. I strongly believe all Americans deserve that same opportunity," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.)
"While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee Mitt Romney have been clear. We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
"Barack Obama just announced he supports same-sex marriage," Mike Huckabee wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters. "Nancy Pelosi immediately jumped on the announcement and emailed Democrat activists nationwide promising to continue their fight. This is going to be a defining issue this election. Obama, Pelosi and the Democrats have been a complete failure on economic issues so now they are going to focus on issues that will rile up their base. Well, Mr. President it's going to rile up our folks also. Men and women who support traditional marriage."
"President Obama's support for marriage equality marks an important moment for civil rights in America," said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), who co-sponsored legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). "We simply can not treat same sex couples as second-class citizens in our country. Marriage equality is one of the most significant civil rights battles of our time and is critical to guaranteeing the equal protection under the law promised to every American in the Constitution. The President's support for marriage equality should inspire Congress, Governors and state legislatures to advance civil rights for all Americans."
"This is an historic moment and I applaud the President for his decision and courage," Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said. "One of the greatest and most liberating human emotions is acceptance. And what the President did today was accept that the quality of love two people share is more important than their gender. The President's decision required him look within and engage his heart. It is truly wonderful and welcome news."
"As an early and strong proponent of Marriage Equality, I am very happy that President Obama has made this announcement," said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) "Marriage Equality is a matter of basic human rights and all of America's same-sex families are now closer to having their unions recognized by our government. This is an important step in our country's march toward achieving true justice and equality for all."
"President Obama's public support for marriage equality is an historic affirmation of the fundamental American value of equal rights for all," said Howard Dean. "Having signed the nation's first law allowing Civil Unions as Governor of Vermont, I'm also proud to see our president affirm the belief that I and so many other Americans hold: loving and committed couples should have the same benefits that are extended through marriage. Marriage equality is a right and a benefit to all families."