JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 19, 2010
In the gay marriage debate, President Obama says that he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. But has this always been his view? A look back at his statements on gay marriage, from his days as a state senate candidate until his time in the White House, suggests that Obama's public stance has shifted notably:
1996: In response to a questionnaire from Outlines newspaper (now part of Windy City Times), Obama, a candidate for the Illinois state senate seat representing the wealthy Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, writes, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Eight years later, in a letter to Windy City Times, Obama would say that he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996, calling it “an effort to demonize people for political advantage” that should be repealed.
1998: Responding to an Illinois State Legislative National Political Awareness Test: “Q: Do you believe that the Illinois government should recognize same-sex marriages? A: Undecided.”
2004: In an interview with Windy City Times, Obama mentions the religious dimension of the gay marriage debate, says he supports civil unions, and indicates that his stance is dictated in large part by political strategy:
Obama: I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation. I know that's true in the African-American community, for example. And if you asked people, 'should gay and lesbian people have the same rights to transfer property, and visit hospitals, and et cetera,' they would say, 'absolutely.' And then if you talk about, 'should they get married?', then suddenly…
WCT: There are more than 1,000 federal benefits that come with marriage. Looking back in the 1960s and inter-racial marriage, the polls showed people against that as well.
Obama: Since I'm a product of an interracial marriage, I'm very keenly aware of ...
WCT: But you think, strategically, gay marriage isn't going to happen so you won't support it at this time?
Obama: What I'm saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed. I think we can get SB 101 [which would add “sexual orientation” to Illinois’s non-discrimination laws] passed. I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I'm less concerned about the name.”
2006: In his bestseller, The Audacity of Hope, Obama, now a U.S. senator, explains his support for civil unions, again mentioning religion and noting the strategic problems that the push for gay marriage poses:
For many practicing Christians, the inability to compromise may apply to gay marriage. I find such a position troublesome, particularly in a society in which Christian men and women have been known to engage in adultery or other violations of their faith without civil penalty. I believe that American society can choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the unit of child rearing most common to every culture. I am not willing to have the state deny American citizens a civil union that confers equivalent rights no such basic matters as hospital visitation or health insurance coverage simply because the people they love are of the same sex—nor am I willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount. …The heightened focus on marriage is a distraction from other, attainable measures to prevent discrimination and gays and lesbians. (pp. 222-3)
July 2007: At the CNN/YouTube Democratic primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina, Obama discusses interracial versus gay marriage and says that it should be up to individual religions whether they recognize civil unions as marriages:
Anderson Cooper: Senator Obama, the laws banning interracial marriage in the United States were ruled unconstitutional in 1967. What is the difference between a ban on interracial marriage and a ban on gay marriage?
Obama: Well, I think that it is important to pick up on something that was said earlier by both Dennis [Kucinich] and by Bill [Richardson], and that is that we've got to make sure that everybody is equal under the law. And the civil unions that I proposed would be equivalent in terms of making sure that all the rights that are conferred by the state are equal for same-sex couples as well as for heterosexual couples.
Now, with respect to marriage, it's my belief that it's up to the individual denominations to make a decision as to whether they want to recognize marriage or not. But in terms of, you know, the rights of people to transfer property, to have hospital visitation, all those critical civil rights that are conferred by our government, those should be equal.
August 2007: At the Human Rights Campaign/Logo gay issues debate, also during the Democratic primaries, Obama emphasizes the religious importance of the term “marriage” and explains why civil unions aren’t discriminatory:
Q: If you were back in the Illinois legislature where you served and the issue of civil marriage came before you, how would you have voted on that?
A: My view is that we should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word “marriage,” which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given to couples, in terms of hospital visitation, in terms of whether or not they can transfer property or Social Security benefits and so forth. So it depends on how the bill would’ve come up. I would’ve supported and would continue to support a civil union that provides all the benefits that are available for a legally sanctioned marriage. And it is then, as I said, up to religious denominations to make a determination as to whether they want to recognize that as marriage or not.
Q: On the grounds of civil marriage, can you see to our community where [your stance of separating gay rights from the word “marriage”] comes across as sounding like “separate but equal”?
A: Look, when my parents got married in 1961, it would have been illegal for them to be married in a number of states in the South. So obviously, this is something that I understand intimately, it’s something that I care about. But if I were advising the civil rights movement back in 1961 about its approach to civil rights, I would have probably said it’s less important that we focus on an anti-miscegenation law than we focus on a voting rights law and a non-discrimination and employment law and all the legal rights that are conferred by the state. Now, it’s not for me to suggest that you shouldn’t be troubled by these issues. But my job as president is going to be to make sure that the legal rights that have consequences on a day to day basis for loving same sex couples all across the country.
2008: In an interview with MTV, Obama says he opposes Prop 8, but also gay marriage. Civil unions, the candidate says, are sufficient:
I have stated my opposition to [Prop 8]. I think it is unnecessary. I believe that marriage is between a man and woman and I am not in favor of gay marriage, but when you're playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that that is not what America is about. Usually constitutions expand liberties, they don't contract them. What I believe is that if we have strong civil unions out there that provide legal rights to same-sex couples that they can visit each other in the hospital if they get sick, that they can transfer property to each other. 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.
2010: After the Perry decision, which struck down Prop 8, the White House releases this statement: “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." Meanwhile, White House senior adviser David Axelrod tells MSNBC that Obama "does oppose same-sex marriage, but he supports equality for gay and lesbian couples. … He supports civil unions. That’s been his position throughout. So nothing has changed."