“It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” With those words, President Obama made history as the first sitting president to support marriage equality for same-sex couples. It also means this will be the first presidential election with the major party candidates on opposite sides of this issue.
Not since the reproductive rights battles of the early 1990s will a civil liberties debate play such a crucial role in a presidential election, with the electorate deeply divided on the issue.
A new Gallup poll released earlier this week found 50 percent support the right of same-sex couples to marry, the second year in a row it’s crossed the majority threshold. Compare that to 1996, when only 27 percent backed same-sex marriage.
Obama, who had long said he only favored same-sex unions, acknowledged that his position on same-sex marriage was “evolving.” After New York enacted same-sex marriage last year, he observed: "I think what you're seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they've got to be treated like every other American."
That still didn’t add up to a change of heart, however. Even when Vice President Joe Biden blurted out Sunday on Meet the Press that he was “absolutely comfortable” with the idea of same-sex marriage, the White House went to great lengths tell us the view from the Oval Office had not changed.
Whatever led Obama to fully evolve, the fact that a sitting president proclaimed that we should be free to marry whomever we love and want to share our live with is a big deal worthy of celebration, but only to a point. The civil rights reality for gay couples remains mixed.
- Six states and the District of Columbia have enacted marriage for same-sex couples.
- Constitutional amendments banning marriage for same-sex couples are on the books in 38 states, with North Carolina joining their ranks just last night. And marriage will be on the ballot in four states this November.
- The 1996 “Defense of Marriage Act” denies federal recognition of same-sex marriage in both federal law and in state-to-state reciprocation.
Obama’s support for marriage puts him in direct opposition to Mitt Romney, who supports amending a federal anti-marriage constitutional amendment.
Romney even said in a 2009 interview with CNN’s John King: “Marriage is a matter of national consequence. It's a status, it's not an activity, and as a result there should be a national standard. And my own view is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.”
As much as this is an opportunity for division, it is also an opportunity for education. More Americans will learn this is an issue of basic civil rights. Perhaps even Romney would consider pulling out his Etch-a-Sketch again.
Ultimately, there is no way to know what the political fallout will be from the president’s historic announcement. What we do know is that the White House is no longer sitting silent in the gap between millions of American families and the Constitution. The fight for fairness and equal treatment under the law took a critical step forward today.