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Obama backing gay marriage: ‘a historic moment’

Obama backing gay marriage: 'a historic moment'

You know the adage, evolve or die? With yesterday’s unequivocal endorsement of same-sex marriage rights, President Barack Obama took a major risk — but probably not as big as the one he would have run by continuing to hedge.

Dale Carpenter
Photo by Tim RummelhoffDale Carpenter

Indeed moments after the president’s statements to ABC News were released, pundits here and across the country called the moment historic.

“It is an incredibly important day for advocates of equality for committed same-sex couples,” said Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. “To have the executive branch behind full equality is a powerful thing.”

The author of “Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas,” about the U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated sodomy laws, Carpenter serves on the board of the main group working to defeat a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage here, Minnesotans United for All Families.

Supporters had become impatient

Obama’s remarks ended a particularly uncomfortable chapter in his relationship with LGBT voters, who have lent him considerable financial and organizing support only to grow impatient with his repeated statement that his views on same-sex marriage were “evolving.”

“I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Obama explained yesterday, adding that he was influenced by conversations with gay friends, with the first lady and with his two daughters, who have friends growing up in LGBT-headed homes.

“I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word ‘marriage’ was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth,” Obama said.

Larry Jacobs
Larry Jacobs

“I think it’s a historic moment,” said Larry Jacobs, the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Just marking the trajectory of Obama himself is telling.

“This has become a litmus test on tolerance and political courage,” he added.

Polls taken during Obama’s first year in office showed public support for gay marriage hovering between 40 percent and 49 percent. A Gallup poll taken this month found 50 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while opposition has fallen to 44 percent.

Pressure, then ‘gutsy call’

Obama came under pressure to end his silence earlier this week when first Vice President Joe Biden and then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came out in favor of marriage equality in the lead-up to Tuesday’s North Carolina primary, where a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage passed.

The chair of the University of Minnesota’s Communications Department, Ed Schiappa, has tracked the same-sex marriage debates throughout the country and studied popular perceptions of gays and lesbians. Obama, he said, doubtless considered what the announcement is likely to cost him and made “a gutsy call.”

“That’s an amazingly brave position,” said Schiappa. “It’s a principled position that he knows is going to cost him votes in an election year. That’s stunning.”

While the president’s decision will prove costly with some constituencies — he won North Carolina by a single point in 2008 — it’s likely to pay off in the form of a more energized base. Support for gay marriage is much higher among younger voters, which marriage-rights supporters have argued is the real urgency fueling the campaigns to amend state constitutions.

“I think he’s reflecting both the competitiveness of the race he’s entering, where he’s going to need the support of gays and lesbians, and it’s a clear signal of the generational shift of support for gay marriage,” Jacobs said.

‘A historic marker’

Democrats, he said, “need some wind at their backs.” And the fact that a provocative stance on a divisive issue could provide it is also remarkable, Jacobs said.

“It’s a historic marker: A president fighting for his political life now sees it as to his advantage to come out as a supporter of gay marriage,” he said.

Will such a strong statement give a major boost to campaigns to defeat the proposed marriage bans on ballots here and in at least four other states this year?

“Probably not,” said Nancy Zingale, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of St. Thomas. “It’s an issue that a lot of people have made up their minds on. Also, a constitutional amendment to ban something that is already prohibited by state law is different than a gut check.”

Obama’s proclamation, she agreed, was “more likely to have an effect on his standing,” particularly with his financial backers.

‘A clear and present danger’

The spokesman for the main coalition campaigning for the state ban, Minnesota for Marriage, suggested that the president’s words illustrate the need for a constitutional amendment. “We clearly have a clear and present danger,” said Chuck Darrell. “This is exactly what we need to do: Take our existing law and put it in the constitution so politicians like Obama can’t meddle.”

Chuck Darrell
Chuck Darrell

The ABC interview, he predicted, will muster support for the vote-yes forces: “The people of Minnesota have been pretty clear about this.”

Carpenter, who has signed onto the vote-no campaign, disagreed. “It will increase the number of conversations Minnesotans are having on this issue,” he said. “We think more talking about this promotes more evolution toward equality.”

Watershed moment though it might have been to have a sitting president back gay marriage, it does not mean LGBT weddings are just around the corner anywhere but the six states where it is already legal.

Divided prospects in states

Obama said the question whether to approve same-sex marriage should still be decided at the state level, where same-sex marriage has divided prospects. In three it was enacted by legislatures and in three by courts that found existing laws discriminatory.

Marsha Ternus
Photo by Morgan HolcombMarsha Ternus

Almost exactly 24 hours before Obama’s remarks, the Minnesota Lavender Bar Association heard from Marsha Ternus, who was chief of the Iowa Supreme Court when it made its unanimous 2009 decision to legalize gay marriage in that state.

Ternus and two of her fellow justices were voted out the next year following a nasty, high-volume campaign by the same national organization funding Minnesota’s marriage-ban effort. In Iowa, judges are nominated by a merit selection panel, appointed by the governor and must face a retention vote every eight years.

Financed by out of state interests, the campaign to oust the Iowa justices urged voters to “send a signal.” “The criticism was not of our decision,” Ternus told a Minneapolis audience Tuesday. “It was that the court had ignored the will of the people and violated God’s law.”

Ex-justices receive courage award

The three defeated Iowa justices, who have spoken little about the experience, last weekend received the prestigious Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston. Judges, she noted in her remarks here, often are called on to make politically unpopular decisions, particularly where the rights of minorities are concerned.

When the Iowa high court took up the landmark case, Varnum v. Brien, Ternus had not thought much about same-sex marriage. Right away, it was clear all of the justices agreed with the six couples who filed the suit that the law preventing them from marrying violated the equal protection clause in the state’s constitution, she said.

Because they knew their unanimous opinion would be read by all kinds of people, they took pains to craft their decision in lay-friendly language. “We took pains to point out that the ruling did not apply to religious definitions of marriage,” Ternus said here.

When the campaign to vote her, Justice David Baker and Justice Michael Streit out of office began, the three made a decision not to raise money or campaign to retain their seats even though Iowa law allows judges to campaign. Their reasoning: They would be engaging in the same politicizing activity they felt was tarnishing the credibility of the court.

“We would have played right into their hands,” she said. “We would have given them something else to point to, to call into question.”

When the three lost their seats in November 2010 it was the first time an Iowa Supreme Court justice was not retained since the election system 1962. In the two months she served after the vote, Ternus said lawyers twice challenged the court’s orders, saying they were potentially politically motivated.

“Politicized judicial races, in my view, pose a serious threat to our democracy,” said Ternus. “They made their point. They wanted to scare off any other supreme court justices from doing what we did.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 05/10/2012 - 10:42 am.

    It is a federal matter–First Amendment and more.

    In order to join the US as a state, each state is required to abide by the US Constitution. That includes the First Amendment. That may seem odd, but it is the relevant part everyone understands. It is important because this is *also* a religious–as well as a social–contract.

    Marriage as a social contract existed long before organized religion. Marriage historically was NOT between “one man and one woman”. So, any attempt to restrict marriage to that tiny subset of what had been historically defined as “social marriage” is (by definition) “not natural”.

    Because social marriage was an essential part of society, when various religions finally became organized, they began to “take over” the term “marriage” (including changing its definition to suit themselves) in order to more fully control their believers and their lives and families.

    As long as there is an official state religion, there is little conflict between the two entities (state and religion). However, the US does not permit any state religion–it permits most religions to exist so long as they do not interfere with the rights of other people or religions.

    The problem with exclusively defining marriage as “one man and one woman” arises because the govt (state and federal) recognize–as legitimate religions–various groups that have different religious beliefs in what constitutes “marriage’ before “God”. The govt–at any level–does not have the authority to permit Group A to legally perform marriages (religious AND socially recognized) and to deny that same authority to Group B (or C or D, etc) under the same circumstances because to do so would be to essentially OFFICIALLY sanction one religion over another. There exist officially recognized Christian religions that perform same-sex marriages per their religious beliefs. The govt does not have the authority to NOT allow them to make those marriages legal.

    That is prohibited under the First Amendment to the US Constitution (which ALL states officially agreed to follow), which means no state can “pick and choose” which religions (and which individuals) are allowed to “officially” conduct recognized marriages.

    It also extends directly to the individual through the US Constitution–Article IV, Secs 1 and 2 (first clause). Thus, other states do not have the authority to NOT recognize a marriage considered valid in at least one state. As states can not refuse to withhold recognition of a religion’s actions (such as marrying two people who “believe”) based on the religion’s beliefs, that means the only requirement for legal recognition is to fill out the paperwork to make it official. The fact the paperwork is wrongly-worded (and needs to be changed) is the state’s problem.

  2. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 05/10/2012 - 12:08 pm.

    gay marriage

    Obama did the right thing constitutionally and ethically and courageously. I don’t think he could afford to dither any more, for one thing.
    I don’t know if he’ll pay for it politically or not. Most of the people who are against gay marriage are also against Obama. I think he’ll get a boost of enthusiasm from many of us, and especially from the younger generation who cannot–as I cannot–figure out what is the big deal.

  3. Submitted by Don Berryman on 05/10/2012 - 12:35 pm.

    about time

    Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Justice Michael Streit were brave heroes protecting civil rights, when they knew that it was unpopular and could cost them their jobs.

    Obama waited until it was 50/50 in the public opinion calculating it would help motivate his base. He did the right thing, but a little late.

    Why do ‘liberals’ waffle on this issue so much – the only time Welstone let me down was when he voted for DOMA.

  4. Submitted by George Dingo on 05/10/2012 - 01:37 pm.

    I don’t get it.

    He has flipped flopped on his position of gay marriage all his career. Why are you calling him “courageous” He is just doing what every politician does and takes the side of something that they think will win them more votes. I could care less who marries who. I just want to make sure that everyone has the same rights as everyone else. Hetro or same sex relationships should have the same right to get recognized by the government they live under equally. Call them Civil Unions all of them. Let the churches keep the word “Marriage”.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/10/2012 - 02:21 pm.

    Political courage?

    or jumping to the head of the parade and calling it leadership.

    If Gallup shows that people support gay marriage by 50-44%, then why is this a “litmus test for political courage?” This smacks of placing your wet finger into the wind.

    If the majority of the people allegedly support same-sex marriage then it seems to me that those politicians who oppose it are the “courageous” ones. Tell me where I’m wrong.

    • Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/10/2012 - 09:55 pm.

      I would suggest that the more tactile gay rights story right now is the testimony of several Cranbrook School Alumni who many years ago saw a younger feminized boy restrained and assaulted by a lad named Mitt Romney.

      Mitt characterized the assault as “hijinks” implying that assaulting classmates with less physical and social capital is an activity which may be placed in the category of youthful amusements. One wonders if the recipient class is ever consulted in this.

      //Mitt Romney’s prep school classmates recall pranks, but also troubling incidents//

  6. Submitted by John Edwards on 05/10/2012 - 04:28 pm.

    A political calculation

    President Obama made a simple political calculation. He bowed to his fundraisers (one in six of his financial bundlers are gay reports the liberal Washington Post) while figuratively tossing his black supporters under the bus, calculating that they are less likely to turn against him than the gays.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/11/2012 - 09:12 am.

    Of COURSE It’s Based on Political Calculations

    He’s the President of the United States for heaven’s sake. EVERYTHING he does is, of complete necessity, based in part on political calculations!

    But it’s STILL an act of courage and faith. Bear in mind that the United Church of Christ, the Denomination of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where President Obama appears to have truly come to HAVING a faith, has been on record in support of gay marriage for many years. Indeed, I suspect God has sufficient capacity to love that God will continue to love, support, and seek to guide those in “straight” relationships as much as God ever has, even if it now becomes clear that God (who created them, after all) also loves, supports, and seeks to guide people in “gay” relationships.

    More importantly, President Obama’s statement in support of gay marriage is also an act of compassion directed toward some of “the least of these” (in terms of respect) in our society. The respect it offers to gay and lesbian persons who are in long term, committed relationships and to the children being raised by those people provides a powerful antidote to the bigotry and disrespect those people have so often faced.

    Furthermore, although a few people’s feelings will be hurt, since Obama’s support for gay marriage, in effect, removes support for their efforts to force themselves into living what they were taught were “normal” (straight) lives, despite their strong attraction to individuals of their own gender,…

    His support for gay marriage will not, in any way, damage the institution of “straight” marriage nor force anyone to leave their marriage, nor force any straight person to marry a person of their own gender, nor force any religious organization or clergy person to perform gay marriages, nor even force anyone who still believes that being in a “straight” marriage is the only acceptable alternative, regardless of their sexual orientation, to give up on that idea.

    Now, if our “conservative” friends (who have the highest divorce rates) could only find ways to support and respect their OWN (straight) marriages, rather than projecting the insecurities and dysfunctions in their own relationships onto others and attacking those others for the things they can’t bear to acknowledge in themselves,…

    they might be able to actually do something to save “straight” marriage from further destruction (destruction which they, themselves, are largely causing).

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