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  • Sasha Issenberg

December 22, 2010: Obama declares his views on marriage “constantly evolving”

ON THIS DAY IN 2010...

At a year-end press conference held shortly after Congress passed a law allowing gays to serve openly in military, President Barack Obama indicated that his views on same-sex marriage were in flux.

Obama had been elected in 2008 as a supporter of civil unions who resisted extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians because doing so would defy his religious beliefs. (“For me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union,” he told megachurch pastor Rick Warren during that campaign. “God's in the mix.") But earlier in his career, when civil unions were not an established policy alternative, Obama had endorsed full marriage rights, and some of his closest advisers continued to believe he had backed off that position purely out of convenience.

In December 2010, Obama had delivered on the major gay-rights pledge he had made during his candidacy, by persuading Congress during its lame-duck session to end the so-called Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell prohibition restricting military service on the basis of sexual orientation. Hours later, facing the media at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the triumphant president was challenged by ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper as to whether it was “intellectually consistent to say that gay and lesbians should be able to fight and die for this country but they should not be able to marry the people they love.”

“My feelings about this are constantly evolving,” Obama responded. “I struggle with this. I have friends, I have people who work for me, who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. And they are extraordinary people, and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about.”

“At this point, what I’ve said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have. And I think -- and I think that’s the right thing to do,” he went on. “But I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think is something that we’re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.”

The opening words of that passage mimicked language Obama had used earlier that fall in a roundtable with progressive bloggers, where Obama parried a question about marriage from AMERICAblog deputy editor Joe Sudbay of AmericaBlog that “attitudes evolve, including mine.” He would use the same Darwinian framework when he formally endorsed marriage rights in the midst of his reelection campaign.

But at the end of 2010, the president’s political views towards same-sex marriage were a less urgent consideration for the White House than the administration’s legal position on the one piece of federal legislation that addressed the subject: the Defense of Marriage Act, whose constitutionality was under challenge in a series of cases likely to end up at the Supreme Court.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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