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Obama backing gay marriage: ‘a historic moment’

“To have the executive branch behind full equality is a powerful thing,” said U of M law professor Dale Carpenter.

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.”

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“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.”