I have made no secret of my admiration for Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor’s consistent message of civility in the campaign and towards the president is welcome in a party that seems to have forgotten it. And his willingness to take positions that he knows could doom his candidacy is the very definition of leadership. But it is how Huntsman characterizes his courageous position on one of those issues that has me putting down my pom-poms.

When asked about marriage equality, Huntsman is forthright. He believes that marriage is between a man and a woman. He told the folks on “Morning Joe” yesterday that it would be “impossible” to change the definition of marriage to include loving and committed same-sex couples and that he wouldn’t be in favor of such a change. In the same breath, however, Huntsman expresses support for civil unions. This puts him in a very lonely place in the Republican field for president. But it’s how he says it that irks me.

“But I believe, just subordinate to marriage we have not done an adequate job in the area of equality and reciprocal beneficiary rights,” Huntsman said. You catch that? “Just subordinate to marriage”? He repeats that line every time he’s asked the question. The first time I heard it was during an interview with George Stephanopoulos last month. And it’s bothered me ever since. You can’t get to equality if you’re pushing a “subordinate” institution.

Civil unions was a major milestone in 2000, when then-Gov. Howard Dean (D) signed a bill making Vermont the first state in the union to grant to same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities that accrue to straight married couples. By 2004, even President George W. Bush (R) went on record supporting them. Over the next seven years we have seen the tide shift dramatically towards greater acceptance of full marriage equality for same-sex couples.

No one has been able to articulate why civil unions just doesn’t cut it anymore as an alternative to marriage equality better than Republican super lawyer Ted Olson. He and Democratic super lawyer David Boies are challenging California’s Proposition 8, which added a ban on same-sex marriage ton the state’s constitution by voter referendum in 2008. At a briefing last month on their efforts, Olson explained why “marriage” matters.

At the end of the day, the word marriage means something. It isn’t just the institution of marriage. It is the words themselves. Our proponents argued vigorously that the word marriage meant something very, very important so that that should be limited to certain people marrying someone of the opposite sex . And that domestic partnerships or civil unions would be just fine for the rest of America because marriage meant something very, very special. Well, that because it means something very, very special is why it is wrong to deny it to some of our citizens. Just like the word citizen means something. You could say to someone you could have all the rights of a citizen — you can vote, you can travel, you can do all these things — but you can’t call yourself a citizen you wouldn’t be an American then, would you? And if you can’t be married, you don’t have the same rights or same status or same dignity, same respect that other people do.

President Obama holds the same position as Huntsman on marriage equality. But unlike Huntsman, Obama says his thinking on the issue is “evolving.” The president is taking a lot of heat of late for his stance on same-sex marriage. But on this I have to agree with Greg Sargent. Obama will come out in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. It’s just a matter of when.