Obama could make the difference on gay marriage

The New York Times reported this weekend that President Barack Obama's views on gay marriage are "evolving" and that there are serious discussions inside the White House about how to handle the shift if he decides to publicly support same-sex unions. The president has a fairly good record on gay rights issues; he successfully pushed for the abolition of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. But even as the nation has grown to accept the idea of same-sex marriage, the president has held back, citing his own religious views as the basis for an embrace of civil unions but not of full-fledged marriage.

Whether Mr. Obama changes his stance would probably make little if any difference in his re-election bid next year. Three national polls this spring found majorities of Americans support legalizing same-sex marriage. The most recent poll, released by Gallup last month, found 53 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed; a year earlier, those numbers had been almost exactly reversed, with 44 percent in favor and 53 percent opposed. But despite the rapid shift in public opinion, other issues — primarily the economy, the budget deficit and the new federal health care law — are almost certain to be the deciding factors in the 2012 presidential race.

The president's advocacy would also likely have no effect on national law; he already opposes the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions from states that allow them. The president's advocacy isn't going to get a repeal through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives or past a filibuster in the Senate. But Mr. Obama's full support for marriage equality — and, perhaps most importantly, an explanation of how he has wrestled with the issue — could have a significant effect on the state level, and in particular on the debate in Maryland. Gay marriage passed Maryland's state Senate this year but came up just short in the House of Delegates, in no small part because of the opposition of African-American churches.

The reluctance of many African-Americans, particularly in the religious community, to see the issue as a continuation of the civil rights struggle has been puzzling and disappointing for gay rights advocates. Particularly painful is the question of whether the surge in black turnout for Mr. Obama in 2008 contributed to the passage in 2008 of California's Proposition 8, which struck down gay marriage there.

In Maryland, Del. Emmett C. Burns, himself a veteran of the civil rights movement and one of the state's most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage, gave voice to the disconnect between the two issues. During the floor debate on the gay marriage bill, Delegate Burns, who is a minister, said the push for same-sex unions is not comparable to a civil rights movement in which blacks and their supporters were beaten or killed. "If same-sex marriage is to be equated with the civil rights movement that I know … show me your Birmingham, Alabama, where high-pressure water hoses were turned on us, so powerful they knocked the bark off trees."

Reverend Burns concluded: "I am a black man, an African-American. I cannot change my color, nor do I wish to do so. Those who are gay can disguise their propensity. Even in this legislature, 50 or 100 years ago gays and lesbians were here because they could disguise who they were. I was not here because I can never disguise who I am."

Not all black leaders share Reverend Burns' views. National leaders of the NAACP have recently begun to speak out in favor of same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue; at the height of the debate in Maryland, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond even wrote a letter to The Sun equating the laws against gay marriage to those that banned interracial marriage. But they do not provide a counterweight to the voices of opposition in the African-American community like President Obama could, both because of his stature and because of the fact that he could speak to the experience of changing one's mind.

That's already happening at the other end of the political spectrum. As of this afternoon, gay marriage is within a vote or two of passing in New York, thanks to a handful of Republican senators who have defied threats from their party's conservative base to announce their support for the measure. If gay marriage is to pass in Maryland, a handful of African-American delegates will likely have to do the same thing. That would be much easier if, in doing so, they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with President Obama.

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