Obama and gay marriage: 'Evolving' is no longer an option

“If slavery had been put to a vote in the South, that would not have been a way to end it.”

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell spoke these sobering words yesterday when discussing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional.

Prop 8 was the 2008 statewide ballot referendum specifically designed to overturn the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Funded largely by the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints, as well as right-wing, anti-gay and anti-abortion groups disguised as “pro-family”, the measure passed with a simple 52 percent majority. From its very inception, Prop 8 represented a flawed 14th Amendment infraction: rendering the rights of a minority group to the whimsical leanings of the majority.

theGrio opinion: Why Obama should come out for same-sex marriage

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“Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently,” read the Appellate Court decision, “There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted.”

The ruling was yet another small step forward in a journey that has taken too many steps back, and though there was pause for celebration, the final implications remain unclear.

President Barack Obama did not weigh in directly on the decision, but White House Press Secretary Jay Carney spoke on his behalf saying, the president continues to “evolve” on the topic of same-sex marriage.

Carney said that the president’s personal stance on same-sex marriage hadn’t changed — a stance that has consistently been in favor of civil unions and partnerships granting all the rights of ‘marriage’, save the word itself.

Carney added “divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights to same-sex couples is something this president has long opposed.”

Though President Obama’s approach to LGBT rights is the most progressive of any U.S. president, he has received considerable criticism from liberal supporters who are disappointed he has not been sufficiently definitive.

At issue is that President Obama’s non-aggressive approach allows him to court the votes of gay liberals and their allies, while not offending members of his Democratic base who hold religious objections to gay marriage. By saying that his position on same-sex marriage is “evolving,” Obama expects to please both sides. Carney’s remarks only reiterated the status quo at a moment when gay rights activists wanted the full and vocal support of the White House. As Sam Stein reported for Huffington Post, “This raised the question of how Obama can be proactively opposed to discrimination against same-sex couples but not proactively in favor of marriage equality?”

To that end, O’Donnell’s slight conflation of the gay marriage struggle to that of civil rights for African-Americans is not without some merit. It reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of placing ‘minority rights’ up for a vote.

The president’s rhetoric on the topic may indeed have die-hard progressives left wanting, but his record on gay rights is clear. Having delivered on his promise to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), to providing partner benefits to gay federal employees, and finally his directive to Holder’s Justice Department to cease defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — the federal statute which allows one state to ignore legally recognized same-sex marriages from another state — it is abundantly clear whose side President Obama is on.

Last year when New York State legalized marriage for gay couples, the president expressed his support, calling it a “good thing”.

“I think it is important for us to work through these issues — because each community is going to be different and each state is going to be different,” the president said.

But this state-by-state approach presents 14th Amendment challenges for equal protection and due process. The longer one state is allowed to discriminate against gay couples seeking to solidify their bonds through marriage — while other states embrace those rights – we have a mismatch of justice, and marriage laws which are inherently separate and unequal.

Only the U.S. Supreme Court can fully answer the question once and for all. But given the current balance of the Court, and its conservative leanings, gay rights activists have been reticent about pushing forward too quickly — choosing instead a state-by-state strategy that could potentially force the hands of Congress to repeal DOMA.

And herein lies the challenge for President Obama: a full embrace of gay marriage rights, and a decision to evolve past “evolving,” would be an example of executive fortitude. Obama could answer the well-rehearsed GOP attacks of ‘weakness’ with a clear show of ‘strength’.

As the 2012 race heats up, the decision could also provide some political advantage against the presumed Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

Romney’s well documented flip-flops include this very issue. The former governor had promised Massachusetts residents he would be to the left of Senator Kennedy on the issue of gay rights during his ‘94 Senate race, but when he had the chance to support the State’s 2004 decision to provide marriage, chose instead to work with conservative groups to overturn it. Romney has recently signed on to support a “Federal Marriage Amendment,” and has claimed he would have left DADT in place. In addition Romney provides millions in financial support for the Mormon church’s anti-gay efforts in states like California.

Obama could provide a clear and untethered contrast between himself and a spineless Romney — but it would require a bold move that risks offending members of his base.

There is no doubt that President Obama is personally committed to full equality for gays and lesbians, and it seems more likely than not, that on a personal level, he already fully supports gay marriage. But in a country whose politics are so infused with religious bigotry, the president is forced to play at appeasement: saying what too many closed-minded citizens want to hear.

Leadership demands tough choices. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously articulated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Given the current state of the Republican Party, with its incessant attacks on individual liberties and women’s rights, it would be naïve and unwise for liberals to abandon a most promising ally in Barack Obama. Yet encouraging a good president to be a great one is the duty of a responsible citizenry.

President Obama has clearly proven himself to be on the right side of history when it comes to gay rights: but the rhetoric of “evolving” is political expediency disguised as status quo. Such appeasement is wholly unnecessary for a man who has, on his own merit, already transformed the entire platform of what is possible.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.