President Obama's beliefs meet his policy

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 9:09 AM

Judging by the White House statement after a federal judge struck down California's Proposition 8 on Wednesday, you might think President Obama supports the rights of gays to marry.

The president "has spoken out in opposition to Proposition 8 because it is divisive and discriminatory. He will continue to promote equality for LGBT Americans," the White House said.

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But Obama does not endorse gay marriage. As a candidate for president, he consistently said marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman.

"I believe that marriage is between a man and woman and I am not in favor of gay marriage," the candidate said just days before the election in 2008.

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So maybe Obama supports the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which codified a federal ban on gay marriage and is one of the key targets for repeal by the gay community?

Wrong again.

After initially saying the law should not be repealed, Obama switched his position in 2004, calling the law "abhorrent" and calling for its reversal.

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"When Members of Congress passed DOMA, they were not interested in strengthening family values or protecting civil liberties," Obama wrote in a letter to a gay-oriented Chicago newspaper. "They were only interested in perpetuating division and affirming a wedge issue."

In 2007, he explained his change of heart as the result of conversations with gay friends, who explained how hurtful the legislation was. Obama repeated his desire to repeal the act as a presidential candidate. But the president has not actively sought an appeal. He has said he would support such an effort by Congress but has accepted the sentiment among congressional leaders that, in the current political environment, a repeal would not pass.

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Instead, Obama supports civil unions, the extension of legal benefits to gay couples, which he says provide important rights to gays and lesbians in their everyday lives. Never mind that many gay activists view civil unions as an unwelcome half-measure that undermines efforts to secure the right to marry.

With civil unions, same-sex couples "can visit each other in the hospital if they get sick . . . they can transfer property to each other," Obama said. "If they've got benefits, they can make sure those benefits apply to their partners. I think that is the direction we need to go."

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Obama has issued executive orders that require hospitals to treat gay and lesbian couples the same as heterosexual ones. And he has changed bureaucratic rules to expand rights for gay couples who work in the federal government, winning praise from some gay activists but evoking impatience and frustration from others.

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In his 18 months in office, the president also has urged repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But that effort, too, remains mired in legislative limbo.

The California case probably will take years before it reaches the Supreme Court and commands presidential attention. But the issue of gay marriage -- and, more broadly, the issue of gay rights -- remains a sensitive one for a president who received a significant amount of support from the gay community.

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