After years of “evolution,” President Obama today switched his past opposition to same-sex marriage and says that he now supports the right. Obama stated that he only came to this realization after speaking with his family and gay and lesbian associates, but he now personally supports same-sex marriage. He continues to maintain however that the question of same-sex marriage must remain a state issue, which would indicate that he does not view this as a right protected under the Bill of Rights. Obama however has now distinguished himself as the only major candidate in the general election who will not oppose same-sex marriage as a personal matter.
In an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, Obama stated:
“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
That statement falls short of stating that this is a constitutional right as opposed to personal view. In past cases, the Obama Administration has opposed arguments that sexual orientation should be given the same protection as race — even after changing its position on “don’t ask don’t tell” and the “Defense Of Marriage Act.” However, this remains an important, if belated, recognition of the unfairness and inequity facing gay and lesbian couples.
The support of state authority on the question will help Obama control the political backlash in states like Virginia and North Carolina. However, it creates an interesting contrast to the position of the Administration in court in cases ranging from medical marijuana to health care to immigration where it has rejected claims of state authority.
At the moment, it remains dangerously undefined for the Administration: is same-sex marriage a constitutional right or a personal choice in the President’s view? If it is a constitutional right, can gays and lesbians claim heightened scrutiny of review associated with race or at least gender? That does not appear to be the thrust of Obama’s comments. The fact that the Administration continues to crackdown on state medical marijuana laws as a federal question, same-sex marriage would appear to rank below the question of the use of marijuana for terminally ill patients as a legal question.
It is hard to know how to react to the news. Civil libertarians are obviously less than enthused with the long opposition of the President or the view that the President had finally reached a point where even the normally favorable White House press corp was openly mocking his position. Even Democratic stalwarts this week were denouncing Obama and telling him to “man up” and take a stand on principle. It should not take a conversation with your daughters to recognize a fundamental right after years as a state legislator, U.S. Senator, and U.S. President. Yet, he has at least finally dropped his opposition and that puts him in a better position than Romney on the question.
The President should now offer a better idea of the constitutional footing of this right. His description of his thought process notably does not reference notions of equal protection as much as basic fairness:
“This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and, hopefully, the better I’ll be as president.”
The Golden Rule basis for this right leaves if on the same level as other personal choices and social disagreements — as opposed to a matter of equal protection or privacy. Yet, in a process of evolution, we are now at least in the same rough genus of rights. He also can rightfully claim to be the first president to support same-sex marriage.