By: Julia Reinitz
Many Americans rejoiced on May 9th, 2012, when President Obama became the first U.S. President to publicly support gay marriage. The announcement comes at a time of political highs and lows for the gay community, amidst a messy system of state and federal laws on LBGTQ rights. Currently in the United States, it is legal for same-sex couples to get married in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, D.C., and Iowa. An additional thirteen states allow at least a limited form of civil union. In 2012, both Maryland and Washington passed laws allowing gay marriage. However, voters in these states will face referendums in November that look to repeal these laws. The issue is also on the ballot in Maine (where there will be a referendum to overturn a 2009 referendum that overturned a pro-gay marriage law) and Minnesota (where voters will decide whether to overturn a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage).
This mess of legislation and endless referendums only applies to whether states will recognize same-sex marriages. At the federal level, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. DOMA prevents the federal government from officially recognizing same-sex marriages. While the Obama administration has stopped enforcing the law, it is still a serious barrier to same-sex couples receiving marriage-related benefits from the federal government, such as the ability to file taxes jointly.
In the courts, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California’s Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage, unconstitutionally violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. While the 9th Circuit’s decision was narrowly written so as to only apply to California’s law, there has been much speculation in the legal community as to whether the Supreme Court will take up the issue, and if so what the ruling might be.
So, where does Obama’s support for same-sex marriage lie in this mess? What practical consequences will it have for same-sex couples? The answers to these questions depend primarily on (1) whether Obama is reelected and (2) whether the legality of gay marriage is ultimately decided in the courts or in Congress.
Obama’s reelection is critical to his support for gay marriage producing any tangible gains. It is highly unlikely that the president will push any legislation or initiatives on issues other than the economy between now and the election. It is even more unlikely that Obama would push legislation on a controversial issue like gay marriage during a campaign year. If he takes action on this issue, it will be during his second term in office.
At the same time, it remains unclear whether the issue of same-sex marriage will finally be settled in the courts or in Congress. It is possible that the Supreme Court will use the challenge to California’s Prop. 8 to issue a broad ruling on the subject. However, some legal scholars have suggested that such a broad ruling would backfire, producing backlash similar to that seen after Roe v. Wade. Such logic is compelling, as the legalization of gay marriage in a handful of states has led to the banning of gay marriage in a thirty-one states. If the courts choose to decide the issue, it is unlikely that President Obama’s support for gay marriage will significantly mitigate this backlash, as his views will be just as demonized as the court ruling by anti-gay marriage advocates.
However, if the issue is settled in Congress, then Obama’s opinion will have a tremendous impact. If Obama were to make the repeal of DOMA and/or the passage of a pro-gay marriage bill a legislative priority for Democrats in Congress, it is very possible that same-sex marriage could become legal. President Obama has already shown an incredible ability to win on certain pieces of controversial legislation, specifically with the enactment of his health care plan. Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to think that Obama might push gay marriage legislation as a way to create a legacy similar to Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Regardless of the gains that may come from Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, it is right to laud the president for his announcement. At the very least, Obama’s discussion of how his values have ‘evolved’ further open the discussion for most Americans on their own ‘evolving’ values. In 2003, the topic of gay marriage was still something to be discussed in hushed tones. Regardless of legal progress, or lack thereof, it is undeniable that supporters of gay marriage and gay rights in general have made tremendous ideological progress. The increasing openness of the gay community has worked to increase the acceptance of same-sex couples. Majorities in sixteen states have been reported to support gay marriage, and this is largely because of the influence of continuing national dialogue about gay rights issues.
Julia Reinitz is a first year in the College.