What’s Behind Obama’s Latest Evolution on Gay Marriage

Although the President was directly involved in the government's choice to enter the Prop 8 case, he is curiously silent on expanding the California ruling to states that don't allow civil unions.

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Reporters try to ask one more question to U.S. President Barack Obama as he walks away after spesking to the media media at the White House, March 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.

From the Supreme Court Thursday came President Barack Obama’s latest evolution on gay marriage. Obama’s Solicitor General Donald Verrilli submitted an amicus brief to the court urging the justices to guarantee marriage rights to gays in the eight states that currently have civil unions, rather than pushing for those rights in every state nationwide.

Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog explains that Verrilli argued:

When a state such as California allows committed same-sex couples to have virtually all of the rights and benefits of marriage through laws allowing civil unions or domestic partnerships, but doesn’t allow those couples to get married, it is treating the same-sex couples differently because of their sexual orientation [which] violates the Constitution’s requirement that everyone will be treated equally.

Though its language opens the door for a broader ruling, the brief remains silent on those states that don’t allow civil unions. On its face, that seems like a considerable step back from the high rhetoric of Obama’s second inaugural speech:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

Obama took a personal interest in the government’s position on the gay marriage case that will be argued before the court on March 26. It is a California case, so the government didn’t necessarily need to weigh in. SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston says administration sources tell him Obama was:

…involved directly in the government’s choice of whether to enter the case at all, and then in fashioning the argument that it should make.  Having previously endorsed the general idea that same-sex individuals should be allowed to marry the person they love, the President was said to have felt an obligation to have his government take part in the fundamental test of marital rights that is posed by the Proposition 8 case.  The President could take the opportunity to speak to the nation on the marriage question soon.

But if Obama chose to put his government behind the case on principle, what explains the narrow argument?

Obama’s public policy position on the issue has changed over time. In 1996, when he was running for Illinois State Senate, Obama returned a signed questionnaire to a gay Chicago paper saying “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages.” Here’s his advisor Dan Pfeiffer in June 2011 saying Obama wasn’t responsible for the statement. From 2004 on, when running for the U.S. Senate, Obama said his position opposing same-sex marriage was based on his religious faith. And he famously said at a press conference in late 2010 that his feelings on the issue were “evolving.”

That position has tracked the political necessities of the moment. Back in 1996, only 27% of Americans supported the right to same-sex marriage, while 68% opposed it, but when you’re running for State Senate in a reliably Democratic district, you can stake out positions that are not in line with the rest of the state, let alone the rest of the country.

In 2004, the country had changed, but not that much. A strong majority still opposed gay marriage, and the issue cost Kerry votes against George W. Bush in some key states. At the start of his presidency, Obama declared himself still opposed to gay marriage: the country remained largely opposed as well, with 40% supporting it and 56% opposing. By this year the numbers had flipped: 54% support gay marriage, according to a recent CBS News poll, and 39% oppose it.

But Thursday’s arguments are targeted at a different audience: the nine justices, one of whom, Antonin Scalia, has likened homosexuality to bestiality and polygamy. Anthony Kennedy, the sometime swing voter on the court, wrote the path breaking ruling in the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, overturning a prior ruling that upheld state sodomy laws. Kennedy is a tough nut to crack. He is generally conservative, but can be convinced by appeals to liberty, especially when he has some personal exposure to the issue. So it makes sense for Obama to frame the argument narrowly, whatever his personal–or political–feelings on the issue may now be.

It is worth noting, that if the U.S. has moved far, fast on this issue, it is not necessarily setting the pace anymore. The U.S. was among the earliest countries in the world to allow gay marriage in some jurisdictions in 2003, second only to the Netherlands. Since then other countries including Portugal and South Africa, have guaranteed the right nationally. At this point it’s not just Obama or the Supreme Court trying to catch up with shifting public opinion in America; it seems America is trying to catch up with vanguard countries around the world.

190 comments
Palerider1957
Palerider1957

Now let me think for a minute. Why has pResident Soetoro "changed" his stance on homosexuality? hhhhmmmmmmmmmmmm?
It couldn't be because he is a HOMOSEXUAL , could it??????
Oh, I see Time FORGOT to mention pResident Soetoro's long history of homosexuality!
Oh, let me guess, mentioning this makes me a racist and a homophobe, right?
Question. If I am a racist for bringing up the negative about pResident Soetoro, then why are not blacks called racists for ignoring his WHITE HALF!!? Sounds racist to me.
Homophobe? No such animal. It is a MADE UP HOLLOW word meant only to intimidate those who have a view different than homosexuals. This term is ONLY used by Christianaphobes and other assorted bigots!

rbockman
rbockman

the president is telling the voters of California to go eat $hit, they voted for Proposition 8 and he is now trying to negate their vote

rutnerh
rutnerh

Obama wants to leave a legacy including Lincolnesque liberator of the suppressed but extremely vocal and influential gay minority. This would be commendable on the basis of violation of their civil rights, but what about the rights of kindergartners and sub teens who are taught lies about the safety of the gay life style including men with men sex and who as a result contract HIV as early at 14 years according to a recent reliablle report of the CDC, a govt agency (M&M Weekly Report, June 27, 2009), proving that it is indeed a sickening and life shortening lifestyle that is being foisted on gullible kids and condemning to a lifetime of costly medications with numerous side effects. The hypocracy in denying kids access to tobacco, alcohol and other adult vices while allowing exposure to highly communicable diseases similar to TB, leprosy, etc is quite obvious. I personally have no objection to anyone becoming gay after age 18 but please don't brainwash impressionable kids and thereby destroy their health at earlier age in textbooks and other propaganda materials! And by overlooking these facts, Obama is obviously is party to this demagogery by our gay establishment.

hr, health care scientist, ret.

jenny.hootyhoo
jenny.hootyhoo

I believe that the majority of Gay people are born that way.  Although I feel that I could NEVER be Gay or do a Gay act, I believe that Gay people are just as important as I am.  They should have the same rights as I do.  Who gave people the right to deny marriage to two committed people?  These people DESERVE to be happy and not live under a cloud of disrespect.

retiredvet
retiredvet

I see a lot of comments on here about sexual acts. This issue is not about sex. It's about equality. Equal rights for stable loving relationships, emotional and financial security and family. These are basic conservative values.

BobJan
BobJan

Concentrate on the country problems. This is not a problem.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@Palerider1957 I am curious.  Why is "homophobe" a "made-up word,  but apparently you think that "Christianaphobes" is a legitimate one?  Where in the United States are Christians on the receiving end of all sorts of restrictions and prejudices?  I see churches of all denominations all over the place, and every one of them tax-exempt, too.  In general, Christians are much more likely to be on the "giving" side of unfortunate comments than on the "receiving" end.

I don't think that anyone ignores President Obama's white half.  He speaks of his mother and her parents, with love and respect.  Everyone knows his parentage.  If anyone has actual evidence that President Obama is homosexual, it would be good to lay it out.  Not assertions, proof.  Because what is evident is a man with a lovely wife and two daughters.

There have been people who have found every possible fault with President Obama since before he was elected.  Now that he has been re-elected, they continue to complain.    "The dogs bark, but the caravan travels on."


Piacevole
Piacevole

@rbockman It seems that the voters of California have mostly changed their minds.  Besides, the question is going to be settled by the SCOTUS.  The question is whether the Proposition Eight can stand as constitutional, not the eating habits of California voters.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@sacredh I like some of those, a lot.  I can only assume that the people who put them up on signs are somewhat inexperienced.

 On a similar, but somewhat different front. . . when the research for the atom bomb was going on at Oak Ridge, everyone involved was told, essentially, "The first rule of Oak Ridge is, you don't talk about Oak Ridge."

So. . . some employee was asked, "What are you making over there at Oak Ridge?"

 "Seventy-nine cents an hour."    

How on earth did that all get into italics?  What have I done?

notsacredh
notsacredh

"I personally have no objection to anyone becoming gay after age 18 but please don't brainwash impressionable kids and thereby destroy their health at earlier age in textbooks and other propaganda materials!"

rutnerh, I'm straight and have always been straight. People don't turn straight or gay. They ARE straight or gay and a birthday has nothing to do with it. Were you bisexual until your 18 birthday and then fell off the fence? Your sexuality is part of who you are just like eye color, skin color or hair color.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@rutnerh People don't "become" gay after 18, any more than they "become" straight after 18.

It is possible to protect oneself against ADS, and the methods are pretty well known.  The issue is that they have to be used.  In fact, it's a whole lot easier to protect oneself against STDs than it is against TB or leprosy. But unless one lives and works in, say, Louisiana,  one is unlikely to ever be exposed to Hansen's Disease.

You know, on the internet, it is possible to proclaim oneself to be anything, and little way to refute the claim.  But I've known  people who worked in "health science" fields, and worked for a health department, myself.  You don't quite have the story down pat.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@sacredh I can't get too worked up about these things, either.  I thought Seth was not amusing, but my standards for Oscar emcees are not exactly stratospheric.  In fact, to tell the truth, I have no idea why the Oscars ceremony even needs an emcee in the first place.

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

@jenny.hootyhoo Yes and same sex marriage is a strategy.  Mr. Obama knows that.  He has joined forces with the mission of the Church to sponsor revolution among the poor.  He frequently quotes Jesus, who said to the disciples:  "Thou hast put sameness into the mind of man so that he cannot figure it out from the  beginning to the end."  

notsacredh
notsacredh

 "Although I feel that I could NEVER be Gay or do a Gay act"

Anything is possible. I voted for Santorum in the primary.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Too many people think equal rights are special rights.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@BobJan Perhaps not for you, but for a lot of people, it is a very considerable problem.  It is a "problem" which questions our most bedrock principle, that of individual equality under law.  If we want to say (as we have so often in the past) that "some are more equal than others," as Orwell put it, then we can leave this situation unresolved.  If we are adhering to the principle of equality, we ought to settle this.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

 Oh really? Then the Supreme Court should let Prop 8 stand and if the voters of California feel strongly enough about it, then they can pass Prop 9 to legalize "homosexual marriage". Fair enough?


I personally don't trust polls published by the news media, be they left or right. News journalists are nothing but politicians working for one party or the other, and I happen to know from personal experience that it's incredibly easy to skew polls in any direction one pleases when you know the tricks.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Piacevole, my MIL is a fanatic. Her old church was the throw your hands up in the air and let your eyes roll back in your head type. She came home one day after services and told us that first the women got down on their knees and then the men took their turn on their knees. My wife looked at me and said "Don't even say it!" before I could make a reply.

notsacredh
notsacredh

"How on earth did that all get into italics? What have I done?"

Jedi mind meld? The force is strong in you



 

wrathbrow
wrathbrow

@sacredh 

Religions brain wash people at a young age all the time. The promote their own personal beliefs. As soon as they stop doing that, then sure. Otherwise let's give kids facts, not individual opinions on beliefs, and the facts they get today are on the cautions of sex.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Obama was running unopposed. I thought that if Santorum won Ohio or ran close that it would prolong the republican primary and further damage Romney. So, I talked some of my liberal friends to vote the republican ticket to mess up their campaign.

retiredvet
retiredvet

Reminds me of the very last line in the movie 'Some Like it Hot': "Nobody's perfect."

BobJan
BobJan

@Piacevole @BobJan It's not a problem for me in that I treat all people as equals. I'm no better than someone else and they're no better than me. We're all God's children and that's it. We all fall short.

notsacredh
notsacredh

By that do you mean that the media only tells the truth when they agree with your position? Look at the last election. Nate Silver called every state. Before the actual vote he was "biased" while Gallup (which was wildly inaccurate becaue they showed the race was close even to the point of saying that Romney was ahead) was fair? Sorry. Facts are facts whether they represent our personal views or not.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@mary.waterton There were lots of "Jim Crow" laws in effect in certain states when the civil rights activities were going on in the Sixties.  They did not stand in the long run, nor should \they have stood.  The question of equality under law is not really up to people who might very well be prejudiced against it.  The states of the United States must conform their laws to the Constitution of the United States. 

 <I>Loving v. Virginia</I> settled the question of whether states could make "interracial marriage" illegal.  The answer was that they could not.  For pretty much the same reasons given then, I expect that the Supreme Court will determine that there should be no restriction on marriage based upon the gender of the participants.  Other than "because we don't like it," opponents to same-sex marriage haven't been able to articulate any good reasons against it.

 As for polls and journalists, there are valid polls which are carefully constructed, questions carefully worded, and administered to random samples of people precisely to get valid results which represent the reality "on the ground."  There are also journalists who are pretty objective in their reporting.  One of the problems with distrusting all polls and journalists is that it can result in the situation in which the Republican party found itself last fall: They had persuaded themselves that the polls showing an Obama victory were "skewed," that reporters were "biased main stream media," and so when both turned out to have the right story, they were stunned.  Some haven't gotten over it yet.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Piacevole, my MIL believes that Obama is the anti-Christ. That's not a joke. She believes it. Several years ago she brought home a 20 question test from her church that her minister had handed out. She insisted that we all take it. It was labeled "Are you REALLY a Good Christian?".  It gave you points on a sliding scale for your actions, not your words. I'm an atheist. I smoked everyone in the house. My wife came in second. She doesn't go to church either. The two church goers? Last and next to last.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@sacredh I'm reading a book called "Vows of Silence", by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner.  It's basically about the abuse problems in the Catholic Church, and I have just gotten to the part about Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who had some real problems in the spread between what he said and what he did.  I just have the hardest time trying to understand why people let him get away with what they knew he was doing for all those years.  It seems as if they bought what he was selling, even when the whole thing was totally crazy.  I routinely "suspend disbelief" when I read fiction, but some religious people believe astounding things, and deny the evidence of their own eyes.

notsacredh
notsacredh

wrathbow, while I personally have no use for religion, I think the truly good christians get unfairly lumped in with the bashers and haters. The bashers are just much more vocal and religion is politics to them.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@sacredh The Republican party doesn't seem to understand just how much and why they irritate a lot of people.  In order to find out, they'd have to stop haranguing, and start listening.  I don't think there's much danger of that happening.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Piacevole, I agree partially. I think Santorum can do a lot of damage, but I think it would be to the republican party itself. Gerrymandering in 2010 left the republicans in good position to dominate the house for a few years. I want to see the Tea Party keep it's influence for at least the next 4 years. If they can keep their stranglehold on the house and party until then, I think it all but makes it a given that democrats take the White House again in 2016. If we get it again, I think we get the Supreme Court back just by the age of the justices themselves.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@sacredh He doesn't ever actually have to run for office again to have, nonetheless, a sort of gravitational pull.  Look at (for example) Sarah Palin.  Her influence is limited, but she has her fans, yet, and so does Santorum.  

 In fact, in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney was arguably the LEAST influential person on the hustings.  The problem is that so long as the Republican party considers itself beholden to the Tea Party and various people like Santorum, they will be able to get enough votes in enough places to, for example, make the House of Representatives obstinate.

If that situation resolves itself in 2014, then Santorum may become truly irrelevant.  But until then, he's sort of like that meteorite which exploded over Russia the other day: not very big, of himself, but capable of doing a lot of damage, often unexpectedly.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Piacevole, I hope Santorum runs in 2016. He'd be an easy opponent. The electoral vote count was 326 to 206 I believe. Obama took every swing state but North Carolina.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@sacredh I don't think there was ever a "threat" to Obama, in terms of winning the presidency, either.  

 But I do think that every vote that Santorum garnered was a chip, so to speak, in the ongoing game of politics.  One of the first things Republicans say (and the most nearly valid) is that Romney got (I think it was) 47% of the popular vote, and however many electoral votes he racked up, and that is their claim to a legitimacy for their point of view.  And Santorum says, essentially, the same thing:  "I got (however many) votes, so those people agreed with me.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Piacevole, Santorum had zero chance of winning the nomination. Anything at all that could possibly prolong the race, I viewed as a plus for the democrats. Obama would have crushed Santorum in the general election. By possibly prolonging the primary, I saw it as an advantage for the democrats because Romney had to tack even further to the right to placate the Tea Party base. I saw it as all upside with no possible threat to Obama.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@sacredh The problem with voting for Santorum (imho) is that whatever someone might >mean< by the vote, or intend to happen, it goes into the totals as an indication of approval.

Santorum has quite enough self-regard.  He really doesn't need any outside help.  (g)  Then, too, the Republicans on offer last Spring were such a collection of unlikeliness that they didn't really need any help to foul up, I thought.  

Best regards to your wife.


notsacredh
notsacredh

I couldn't talk my wife into it though. She says I'm obsessed with politics.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@BobJan @Piacevole It is true that our own behavior is the only one over which we have any sort of control, but it is also true that we can advocate for causes that benefit people in general, and perhaps thereby improve the circumstances of us all.

That was, after all, the idea under which the civil rights movement - supported by a lot of people who were not, themselves, victims of discrimination - came to succeed.

BobJan
BobJan

@Piacevole @BobJan can't help you there pal. I know the way I treat people and that's all I can control on this planet.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@BobJan @Piacevole Okay.  But if we're all equal, there should be equal treatment of spouses, regardless of gender relative to the other spouse.  The question at issue here is not whether "we all fall short," but whether the shortfall may be imposed by civil law.

This isn't really a "God's children" question, but a question of secular law.