Supporters and critics of President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage agree on one thing: He may not be finished evolving on the subject.
Despite his comments that he thinks the matter should be left to the states, many gay rights advocates strongly believe that it must be dealt with nationally — and that Obama is quietly on their side. Conservative critics of the president suspect the same, citing this as one way the president might tack left if reelected.
And some Obama supporters who are uncomfortable with same-sex marriage fear that in a second term, he would come under enormous pressure to back efforts to impose the legalization of such unions at the federal level.
“For right now, he has said he is going to leave it to the states. Whether he continues to ‘evolve’ — his word — toward further action, I can’t know that,” said the Rev. Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser to the president who opposes same-sex marriage. “I can tell you without a doubt there’s a lot of fear right now from religious communities . . . about where it’s all going to go.”
In particular, they are worried that the president’s preference for state-by-state recognition will give way to the view that same-sex marriage is a guaranteed right under the Constitution. That issue is at the heart of a case that could come before the Supreme Court in its term beginning in October: It involves Proposition 8, a voter-approved California constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage.
Obama opposed Proposition 8. But if the court accepts the case, it could ask the administration for its view on whether marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be withheld from gay couples. Such a finding could sweep away state decisions on same-sex marriage, as well as the bans in 30 state constitutions.
“He’ll have to decide whether he believes the Constitution recognizes gays’ or lesbians’ equality as far as marriage is concerned,” said Theodore B. Olson, a Republican former solicitor general who is a lead lawyer challenging Proposition 8. “That’s not reconcilable with leaving it up to the states.”
It is part of a broader uncertainty stemming from the president’s decision this month to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, a shift that has upended the politics of one of the nation’s most divisive social issues and injected a wild card into the presidential race.
Obama has sought to assure his critics that the announcement was a reflection of his personal opinion and not a call to arms.
“I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn’t want to nationalize the issue,” he said in a May 9 interview. “What you’re seeing is, I think, states working through this issue, in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate.”
Those following the issue are parsing the impact of Obama’s endorsement — and trying to suss out how far he may take a matter that is being hotly debated in Congress, in statehouses, in the courts and in living rooms around the nation.
In a video ad released by his campaign Wednesday, Obama promises to be a “strong advocate” for the rights of gay couples and to “continue to lean forward” on issues such as adoption and federal benefits for same-sex partners, even as he pledges to protect religious liberties.
Before he announced his support for same-sex marriage, Obama ended restrictions against gays serving openly in the military, and his Justice Department said it would no longer defend in court the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of same-sex unions. The administration said the law violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, an argument that some say conflicts with the view that states should decide.
“If you believe the matter should be left to the states, that means you think the Constitution permits the states to take a different view,” said Michael McConnell, a constitutional law professor at Stanford University. “I don’t see how that can be squared with Attorney General [Eric H.] Holder’s claim” that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
The Obama campaign is making same-sex marriage an election issue. It announced plans Wednesday to reach out to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender voters and to use the issue to paint a stark contrast with the president’s presumptive Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, who supports passing a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Obama’s announcement has already had ripple effects, prompting an endorsement of same-sex unions from the NAACP and fueling calls to add the issue to the Democratic Party’s platform this summer.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that his comments may have increased support for same-sex marriage among blacks, a key Democratic constituency that has generally opposed such unions.
Gay groups praised the president for striking a major blow for their cause and helping them in the fight to win over hearts and minds.
“It’s to me very clear and unqualified, and not up for debate, that the route that this is ultimately going . . . is going to be to recognize justice and equality,” said Chad Griffin, a Democratic fundraiser and incoming president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. “I expect that our federal judiciary will side with the side of equality and justice, and I hope the Justice Department will continue to file in the way that they’ve filed in the DOMA case.”
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Peter Wallsten and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.