Supporters of gay marriage react to a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that California's Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, in San Francisco on February 7, 2012. UPI/Terry Schmitt | License Photo
U.S. President Barack Obama went out on a political limb last week, saying he has come to support the idea of same-sex marriage but stopped short of saying the federal government should recognize it.
"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," Obama said in an ABC interview, coincidentally -- or maybe not so -- the week after that section of the Bible was read by Jewish congregations and just a day after North Carolina voters approved a referendum defining marriage only as a union between a man and a woman, making it the 31st state to do so. It also came on the heels of endorsement of the idea by Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Obama said the issue should not take up a lot of his time and he doesn't really see that his comments create any political advantage.
"I think it would be hard to argue that somehow this is something that I'd be doing for political advantage. Because frankly, you know -- you know the politics, it's not clear how they cut," he said. "But I'm not going to be spending most of my time talking about this because frankly my job as president right now, my biggest priority is to make sure that we're growing the economy, that we're putting people back to work."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed to agree the federal government should not expend energy on the issue.
"I'm gonna stay focused on what the American people want us to stay focused on, and that's jobs," Boehner said in response to a reporter's question about the president's remarks.
Obama's presumed Republican opponent Mitt Romney said though he supports civil unions, he opposes gay marriage and civil unions that would differ from marriage only in name.
"Three-thousand years of human history shouldn't be discarded so quickly," he said.
Obama said his evolution can be credited in part to his children.
"You know Malia and Sasha, they've got [friends whose parents] are same-sex couples. It wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently. And -- and frankly that's the kind of thing that prompts a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated differently when it comes to the eyes of the law," Obama said.
At a fundraising event late Thursday, Obama called it only "logical" to recognize same-sex marriage.
"Are we a country that includes everybody and gives everybody a shot and treats everybody fairly and is that going to make us stronger? Are we welcoming to immigrants? Are we welcoming to people who aren't like us? Does that make us stronger? I believe it does. So that's what's at stake," he said.
The Old Testament is quite explicit: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence."
A few verses later, it goes on to explain: "If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death -- their bloodguilt is upon them."
(These citations come from "Etz Hayim," an Old Testament translation used by Conservative Jewish congregations.)
Yet religious leaders have urged their congregations to accept gays and lesbians into the fold.
"Many religious liberals have interpreted the beginning of [the first] verse as referring only to sexual activities between two males during a pagan temple ritual," the Religious Tolerance.org Web site explains. "If there were a liberal translation of the Bible, it might say, 'Ritual anal sex between two men in a pagan temple is forbidden.'"
That interpretation certainly would provide wiggle room.
Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro likened Obama's position to Johnson's on civil rights, calling it gutsy and "a wonderful thing."
"A lot of presidents shy away from bold decisions, try not to make them," Caro told Politico.
Just as Obama said his views had evolved, two recent polls indicate the views of the electorate have evolved as well.
A Gallup poll taken May 3-6 of 1,024 adults indicates 50 percent of Americans think gay marriage should be recognized by law and partners should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. The results were down 3 points from last year's survey but are nearly double the 27 percent who approved of such unions in 1996. As might be expected, support was strongest among those with no religious identity (88 percent) and opposed most strongly by those who attended religious services weekly (67 percent). The margin of error was 3 percentage points.
The Pew Research Center for People & the Press said its survey, which was conducted April 4-15, queried 3,008 people and had a margin of error of 2.9 to 3 percentage points, indicated 47 percent of Americans support gay marriage while 43 percent oppose it and 11 percent had no opinion.
"In the last two presidential campaigns, there was far more opposition than support for gay marriage," Pew said. "But today, opinions are divided and there is as much strong support as strong opposition to gay marriage [22 percent each]. …
"Since 2004, there has been a broad-based decline in opposition -- including strong opposition -- to gay marriage. In 2004, Americans younger than 30 were divided [48 percent opposed, 45 percent favored]. Today, young people favor gay marriage by more than two-to-one [65 percent to 30 percent]. Opposition has declined by the same percentage -- 18 points -- among those 65 and older; still, a majority [56 percent] of this group continues to oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Strong opposition has declined 18 points since 2004 among those 65 and older [from 46 percent to 28 percent] and 14 points among those younger than 30 [from 28 percent to 14 percent].
"In the current survey, majorities of Democrats [59 percent] and independents [52 percent] favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. In 2008, Democrats favored gay marriage by 50 percent to 42 percent while independents were divided [44 percent favored, 45 percent opposed]. In 2004, pluralities of both groups [50 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of independents] opposed gay marriage. Republicans continue to oppose gay marriage by a wide margin [68 percent to 23 percent], but Republican opposition has declined by 10 points -- and strong opposition by 14 points -- since 2004.
"White evangelical Protestants remain overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage, and opinion among this group has shown relatively little change since 2004. In the current survey, 78 percent of white evangelicals oppose gay marriage, with 56 percent strongly opposed."
Obama had little chance of carrying that last constituency anyway.
"The president's announcement … that he supports legalizing same-sex marriage finally brings his words in sync with his actions," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "From opposing state marriage amendments to refusing to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act to giving taxpayer funded marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the president has undermined the spirit if not the letter of the law. …
"Considering that 10 of the 16 battleground states have marriage amendments that could be overturned by the president's new policy position on marriage, [the] announcement almost ensures that marriage will again be a major issue in the presidential election."
Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and president of American Values, joined in the criticism.
"The charade is finally up. We've always known that Barack Obama supports same-sex marriage. With every action he's taken, from court appointments to his rhetoric, he's been preparing the way to undermine traditional marriage. Obama's finally made that support explicit," Bauer said.
Not all gay rights activists were happy either.
"It is good to see that after intense political pressure that President Obama has finally come around to the Dick Cheney position on marriage equality," GOProud co-founder Chris Barron said in a statement. "I am sure, however, the president's newly discovered support for marriage is cold comfort to the gay couples in North Carolina. ...
"This is hardly a provile in courage ... . President Obama has tried his hardest to have it both ways on this issue."