By Joe Lazauskas
On May 9th, President Obama made more headlines than Jelena on vacay when he announced his support of gay marriage. Here's what you need to know about (#WYNTKA) LGBTQ policy and where it stands in the U.S..
Though the President's announcement was historic -- no US president had ever backed gay marriage before -- his stance in terms of policy hadn’t actually changed. He still believed that the legalization of same-sex marriage was the decision of each state and not under the domain of the federal government.
Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, and seven other states plus Washington, D.C. have since joined them in legalizing or recognizing same-sex marriages. These marriages provide homosexual couples with key rights and benefits, including significant marriage tax credits, emergency hospitalization visitation rights, childcare rights, inheritance rights, and a path to citizenship for non-citizen spouses.
In contrast, 31 states have added amendments that ban same-sex civil unions to their constitutions. It’s a hot button issue that’s sparked passionate displays of opinion by everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Lady Gaga (two people who should probably be constitutionally banned from ever getting married to each other).
Same-sex marriage is the centerpiece issue for LGBTQ rights heading into the November election, and with a recent CNN poll showing that 54% of Americans now support the legalization of same-sex marriage, and only 42% are opposed, there’s a sense that the LGBTQ rights conversation is “evolving,” as President Obama similarly described his own beliefs. Supporters point to the 66% support for same-sex marriage amongst 18-34 year-olds, in the same poll, as a sign of LGBT rights’ clear momentum.
+ Why is same-sex marriage a state issue?
The question of states’ rights versus federal rights is US politics’ version of Tupac vs. Biggie—a philosophical preference that drives identity and ideology.
Conservatives support a smaller federal government and greater states’ rights. Liberals tend to support social welfare initiatives for things like health care, aid for the poor, education and fighting the climate crisis, which tend to lead to a bigger federal government. Liberals also tend to support the federal government’s power to intervene in civil rights’ issues like gay marriage.
The federal government left marriage up to the states completely until 1996, when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but allowed states to legalize gay marriage. The primary purpose of DOMA was to give states the right to not recognize a same-sex marriage enacted in another state.
+ So what do President Obama and Mitt Romney each support?
President Obama’s position is pretty simple. He believes that same-sex couples should be allowed to be married, but he also believes that it’s up to each state to decide whether or not they want to legalize gay marriage.
Mitt Romney’s position is more complex. At the behest of the leading gay marriage opposition organization in the country, National Organization for Marriage, Romney signed a pledge to support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, defend DOMA in court, appoint federal and supreme court judges who oppose gay marriage as a constitutional right, and establish a “presidential commission on religious liberty” to protect gay marriage opponents.
+ Romney pledged to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—is that likely?
It’s not. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds support of both the House and Senate, plus ratification by 75% of the states (currently 38).
With gay marriage supporters outnumbering the opposition 5 to 4, it wouldn't be very popular for the Republican Party to push a ban on gay marriage.
+ Will it remain a states issue?
It looks like it, and with support for gay marriage on the rise, it’s sure to become a key issue in states across the country.
Legalizing gay marriage can be a complicated process. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) vetoed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in early 2012, arguing that it should be put to a popular vote referendum, after it passed both the New Jersey state Assembly (42-33) and the state senate (24-16). New Jersey has offered full civil union rights since 2006, when the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples deserved the same rights as heterosexual couples. Critics have argued that civil rights’ issues should not be put to a popular vote.
+ What can I do?
If you feel strongly about this issue one way or the other, call your local Congressman or Senator and voice your opinion, and get in touch with an LGBTQ rights proponent like the ACLU or a traditional marriage proponent like the National Organization for Marriage.