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On gay marriage, who will pay the price -- Obama or Romney?

Barack Obama has crossed the Rubicon and come to the defense of same-sex marriage. For him, it was a small step, since his is already the most pro-gay rights presidency in history, but it will have big political ramifications.

The war is on. The line is drawn. Mitt Romney -- who, in another incarnation as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, said he stood to the left of Teddy Kennedy on gay rights issues -- now is opposed not only to gay marriage but to civil unions. Any trace of limp-wristed accommodation with homosexuals is being drummed out of the Republican Party, and Mr. Romney wants to prove himself a good drum major.

In state after state, Republicans are backing bills and ballot measures that push back against the rapid advance of "the gay agenda." On Tuesday, voters in North Carolina approved an amendment to the state constitution that not only bans gay marriage, but also makes civil unions and domestic partnerships illegal. This is no mere "defense of marriage;" it is a judgment about what kinds of relationships should benefit from government policies.

It is not about politics, it is about sin. Many religious Americans fervently believe homosexuality is a moral abomination. They also believe heterosexuals living together without the benefit of marriage are breaking God's law. The only sanctified model for human partnership is a man and a woman joined together in matrimony, they insist, and that model should be favored by government while other pairings are discouraged.

This is a traditional view that, only a few years ago, was utterly conventional and largely unchallenged. However, an alternative way of seeing things has emered and has, in recent polls, won the approval of a majority of Americans. Newark Mayor Cory Booker summed up this alternative principle on "The Rachel Maddow Show" Wednesday evening: "This is not about gay rights; this is about equal rights."

This, too, is a traditional ideal and has the added force of being imbedded in our Constitution: No citizen can claim more rights than another; all people are created equal. Therefore, if state or federal governments offer tax advantages, legal protections or special privileges to married people, then every citizen should be allowed to marry. The U.S. Constitution does not pass judgment. It is not the Bible. There is no exception based on what a citizen does in the bedroom or with whom he or she does it. Equal protection under the law is the right of every American.

So, now, an election that was supposed to be about "the economy, stupid," will also be about which tradition should prevail. Mr. Romney and the Republicans have made it perfectly clear they are the party of the religious view. All sinners may find forgiveness, but not all of them have the right to marry. They cannot even establish a household with a person they love and receive the same state-sanctioned benefits enjoyed by married citizens.

The Democrats are the party of equal rights. This is hardly new, but the president's statement of support moves the party to an unambiguous endorsement of same-sex marriage as part of that egalitarian guarantee. At the Democratic convention in September, there will be no attempts to fuzz up the language on this issue in the party platform as there would have been if Mr. Obama were still playing it safe. His position is no longer evolving. He has chosen sides.

Now, we will see if he pays a price. Certainly, this will intensify support for him among liberals and in the gay and lesbian community, but there are more evangelicals than homosexuals in America. There are a lot of blue-collar swing voters with conventional views of sexuality. There are plenty of conservative Catholics among the Hispanic voters the Democrats need to win. Yes, 53 percent of Americans say they favor gay marriage, but a big share of them are young people, who are the laziest voters.

The president probably lost votes by speaking up for gay marriage, but at least with half the country he won new respect. Mr. Obama came into office with expectations he would be a transformational president. On this issue, at least, that is what he is becoming.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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