Opinion writer

The debate over gay marriage is at a stage it should never have reached: Somehow now it’s all about Barack Obama.

“Obama: Out of the Closet on Gay Marriage!” the Traditional Values Coalition shouted in a news release slamming the president’s announcement that he supports same-sex couples being allowed to marry.

Obama Announcement is Cold Comfort to LGBT Americans,” sniffed a statement from Log Cabin Republicans. This gay GOP group chided Obama for disclosing his position the day after North Carolina voters backed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Democratic and liberal groups were also quick to line up on the issue — behind Obama.

A National Jewish Democratic Council news release “enthusiastically applauded” Obama’s announcement.

Democracy for Change called Obama’s statement “a huge victory” in support of full marriage equality.

And so it has gone since Obama’s sit-down with ABC News’s Robin Roberts aired on Wednesday. Assessments are pouring in from all sides on how the president’s declaration will help or hurt his reelection bid.

Mitt Romney weighed in on the heels of Obama’s announcement to remind voters of his opposition to gay marriage and civil unions, and his support for a constitutional amendment that ensures gay couples can never marry.

The debate over same-sex marriage is now focused on Obama and the presidential contest. That is a huge political distraction.

The issue isn’t Obama. At issue is where we, as a nation, are on marriage equality.

National polls suggest the country is nearly equally divided on the issue. Another picture emerges, however, on the ground.

North Carolina’s overwhelming approval this week of a constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage raised the number of states banning such unions to 30.

Think about it this way: If school desegregation amendments had been placed on state ballots in the 1950s, “separate but equal” might still be the law of the land in the South. Fortunately, state-sponsored segregation was not put to a popular vote. That question went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The nine justices unanimously, and rightly, decided in 1954 that state laws creating separate schools for white children and black children were unconstitutional.

The case for same-sex unions also belongs in the courts, not the polling place. At issue is the right of homosexual couples to be treated the same as straight couples under the U.S. Constitution.

At the heart of those “defense of marriage” measures storming through state legislatures and ballot boxes is discrimination — and a certainty of knowing God’s will.

Those measures are little more than statutory schemes to prevent marriage between two people of the same sex. They declare that straight couples should be treated differently from gay couples. They restrict the rights of citizens because of their sexual orientation. They say that the freedom to marry is a vital personal right reserved only for heterosexual people; that states can infringe on the freedom of gays to marry; that, in essence, gays have no rights that straight people are bound to respect.

Fundamental to the support of so-called marriage amendments is the belief that, as the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church told the Charlotte Observer, it is “God’s word that marriage is between one man and one woman.” Harris was a leader in the campaign to pass the North Carolina ban.

That certainty of knowing God’s will was also central to the South’s steadfast opposition to interracial marriage.

Ruling in the case of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial married couple in Virginia in 1959, the trial judge stated that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The Supreme Court also overturned that misguided view unanimously.

But that kind of thinking about interracial marriage was conventional wisdom at one time and in many places in the United States based upon what were considered traditional religious teachings.

So are the views of many who oppose recognizing gay and lesbian relationships as marriage.

It matters not that such unions may be committed and monogamous or filled with a lifetime of love. God has ordained no such thing, traditionalist thinking holds, so gay marriage must be wrong.

But there are other voices, and another side, also religiously oriented, to the debate over marriage equality. They, too, must be heard. At stake is the principle of equality — the essential view that equal liberties should be extended to all couples, straight or gay.

That makes this larger than Barack Obama.