Reaffirming the humanity of gay Americans, the Obama administration has signaled its strongest support yet for same-sex marriages, stepping into a controversial legal case and recommending that the Supreme Court strike down a California ban denying gay and lesbian couples the same rights to marry as heterosexuals.
An administration brief alone isn’t likely to influence Supreme Court justices, legal experts say. Still, the federal government’s opinion does matter, and Obama’s blaring denunciation of California’s Proposition 8 certainly reaffirms his bid to further advance the cause of gay marriage.
That never was a given.
The administration was neither required to weigh in on the contentious California case, nor, surprisingly, was the president set on doing so — not, at least, until recently.
“I have to make sure that I’m not interjecting myself too much into this process, particularly when we’re not a party to the case,” he told a San Francisco television station days before the Feb. 28 deadline to intervene expired.
Obama has had a complicated political history in defining marriage. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama opposed the California ban but never endorsed same-sex marriages. Then, as he ran for reelection, he switched to being personally in favor, as long as states — not the federal government — were allowed to define marriage. Then, on Jan. 21, he signaled the exact opposite: favoring federal involvement.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he said in his inaugural speech, standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. “For if we are truly equal, than surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
Obama has shifted his stance and massaged remarks in tandem with major turning points for gay marriage in the court of public opinion. In May 2008, Gallup found 56 percent of Americans apprehensive about legalizing gay marriage. By November 2012, an election month, the tables had turned, remarkably. For the first time in Gallup’s polling history a majority of Americans supported the legalization drive by 53%.
Even so, the government’s arguments Thursday targeted a different audience. As Time’s Massimo Calabresi suggests, the real targets are “the [Supreme Court’s] nine justices, one of whom, Antonin Scalia, has likened homosexuality to bestiality and polygamy.” Justice Anthony Kennedy is another tough nut to crack, Calabresi points out. “A conservative. …but sometimes swing voter” on the bench, Kennedy is responsible for overturning a ruling that upheld state sodomy laws in Texas a decade ago.
The case, expected to be heard March 26 and due to produce a blockbuster ruling, has Obama facing a firestorm of opposition ranging from Republican states, congressional lawmakers and conservatives advocates. It has also left many European countries — like my own, Greece — in dizzying disbelief, with pundits, politicians and people questioning the superpower’s super prude values and its social progress.
Indeed, the United States was among the first countries to allow same-sex marriages in certain jurisdictions, in 2003. Since then, several other nations, such as Portugal and South Africa, have raced past, not only embracing such equalities but safeguarding them nationally. Whether or not the same-sex marriage debate in America serves the interest of Obama or the Supreme Court in trying to play catch-up with shifting public opinion is no longer the issue. It’s about America, as Calabresi puts it, “playing catch-up with vanguard countries around the world.”