Obama Backs Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court editor, CQ Press
Associate editor, CQ Researcher

President Obama today declared his support for legal marriage for same-sex couples.

Obama’s shift in position came in a hastily arranged interview with ABC News after the White House had come under intense pressure to clarify his position after Vice President Joe Biden’s statement on Sunday that he was “comfortable” with same-sex couples marrying.

“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,” Obama told ABC News’ Robin Roberts in the interview, recorded early Wednesday afternoon.

Excerpts from the interview were released by 3 o’clock, and accounts immediately dominated TV newscasts and went viral in the blogosphere. The interview came just one day after North Carolina voters approved by a 3-2 margin an amendment to the state’s constitution barring recognition of same-sex marriages. North Carolina became the 31st state to include such a ban in its state charter.

The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes recognition for same-sex couples, had no immediate reaction on its website to Obama’s change of position. The anti-gay Family Research Council called Obama’s statement “disappointing but not surprising” in the light of the administration’s positions on other gay rights issues. Tony Perkins, the group’s president, said Obama’s position “ensures that marriage will again be a major issue in the presidential election.”

In favoring legalization of same-sex marriages, Obama returns to the position he took on an issue questionnaire as a candidate for the Illinois state senate in 1996. As a U.S. senator and candidate for president in 2008, however, Obama shifted to opposing marriage for same-sex couples. In the White House, he has said -- and his spokesmen have repeated -- that his position was “evolving.”

News of Obama’s new position cheered gay rights advocates. Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, called the statement “a historic turning point for the freedom to marry movement.” The Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT advocacy group, said the statement amounted to “a message of hope to a generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

Obama had already pleased gay rights groups by successfully urging Congress to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military and by dropping in-court defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars federal benefits for same-sex couples. But his hesitancy on same-sex marriage was wearing thin among gay rights advocates and some leading Democratic figures.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is one of many prominent Democrats who had called for including a pro-gay marriage plank in the party platform at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., at the end of the summer. On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan became the second cabinet member to endorse recognition of same-sex marriages. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan had taken that position in a November interview with Metro Weekly, a Washington, D.C., gay newspaper.

In the interview, Obama said he had been influenced by conversations with “friends and family and neighbors” as well as “members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” He also said he thought 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.”

Several recent polls have shown that a narrow majority of Americans favor recognition for same-sex marriage, with younger respondents favoring it by a substantial margin. In the interview, Obama said differences on the issue are “generational.”

“You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know, believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it,” he said.

Obama also noted that his two school-age daughters, Malia and Sasha, have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. “It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently,” Obama said. “It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”

Obama’s position now puts him on the opposite side of the question as his presumptive Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Romney has said he opposes recognizing same-sex marriages and favors a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit it. Currently, six states plus the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. Thirteen other states provide some marriage-like rights to registered same-sex domestic partnerships.

Legislatures in two other states, Washington and Maryland, approved laws to recognize same-sex marriages earlier this year, but both measures are on hold pending possible referendums in November to block them from taking effect. Besides those potential ballot measures, Maine may also vote in November on a referendum to recognize gay marriages, while Minnesota has a scheduled vote on a constitutional amendment to prohibit recognizing same-sex couples.

For background, see Kenneth Jost, “Gay Marriage Showdowns,” CQ Researcher, Sept. 26, 2008, updated Oct. 15, 2010.