In a courageous act of moral leadership, President Barack Obama has made civil rights history by announcing his support for same-sex marriage. The president has supported civil unions and equal rights for gays and lesbians, but until this week he had stopped short of embracing full marriage rights. Like many Americans, Obama says his views have evolved. While his personal declaration is largely symbolic, it furthers the public conversation and moves the nation further along the path toward equal rights for all couples.
Obama's hand was forced by Vice President Joe Biden. On NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, Biden breezily expressed his comfort with same-sex marriage and was soon followed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan's support. With attention turning to the president, the administration arranged an interview with ABC News for Obama to clear the air and state unequivocally that "same-sex couples should be able to get married." The president said he came to this view through knowing gay friends and having conversations with his wife and daughters, as well as following the "Golden Rule" of treating others as one would like to be treated.
His evolution in thinking is one that many Americans have experienced, and polls show a majority of Americans now support the right of gays and lesbians to marry. But whatever the political calculus, Obama's statement is welcome. The nation's first African-American president asks the country to accept this century's civil rights issue of marriage equality. It is fitting that the president, who has done more to eradicate discrimination against gays and lesbians than any prior president, would lead here, too. Obama successfully pushed in 2010 for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the law and policy that kept openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the military. He also has refused to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as one man and one woman.
Obama's stance on same-sex marriage adds to the stark choice that voters will have in November. The presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, responded to Obama's remarks by repeating his opposition to same-sex marriage as well as civil unions "if it's identical to marriage." Despite the vote Tuesday in North Carolina that amended the state Constitution to bar same-sex marriage and civil unions — like one passed by voters in Florida in 2008 — Romney and the Republican Party are on the wrong side of history. Attitudes are changing quickly, as is evidenced by the noncontroversial nature of the domestic partnership registry passed in Tampa and being considered in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Gulfport and Pinellas County. The St. Petersburg City Council voted Thursday to direct the legal staff to draft an ordinance creating a domestic registry that the council can adopt within the next month.
As the nation's attitude toward equal rights for all couples advances, the president's declaration is a particularly significant step. Obama says the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states, but ultimately a national policy will be needed so same-sex families can enjoy uniform legal protections regardless of where they live or travel. That should be the next step in the president's momentous evolution.