If you follow conservative talk radio, you have no doubt heard pundits place the blame for countless issues squarely on the shoulders of President Obama. In fairness, all presidents inherit challenges from their predecessors and unanticipated natural disasters can derail even the best laid plans. However, there are certain signature initiatives which illustrate their priorities and which form their Presidential legacy. When it comes to the redefinition of marriage, there is no doubt that the Obama Administration has played a major role in advancing same-sex marriage (SSM) while silencing those, who because of their faith or moral objections, hold a traditional view of marriage.
While in the Illinois Senate, State Senator Obama voted in favor of the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Over the last several years, he has shifted from understanding the need to preserve religious freedom through legislation to actively opposing states which attempt to pass laws nearly identical to the one he voted for.
Here is a quick overview of President Obama’s evolution on the issue.
1996– Supported SSM as a Illinois state senate candidate
1998– Voted in favor of Illinois version of Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a State Senator
2004– Supported civil unions but stopped short of supporting SSM as US Senate candidate
2008– Did not support SSM in an interview with mega church pastor Rick Warren (Presidential candidate Obama stated that marriage was a “sacred union” between a man and a woman and that for him “God was in the mix”.)
May 2008– President Obama announced opposition to Proposition 8 (Prop 8 was California ballot measure that stated marriage was between one man and one woman. Voters approved the measure but it was eventually overturned by activist judges.)
February 2011– President Obama directed Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) (The law, commonly referred to as DOMA, stated that for the purposes of federal law and benefits (over 1,000 benefits) marriage was defined as a union between one man and one woman and that the individual states could determine their respective stance on the issue.)
April 2011– Speaker of the House John Boehner led efforts to defend DOMA in court (The Bipartisan Legislative Advisory Group (BLAG), which is a five member counsel composed of the five senior House leadership office holders, appointed former Solicitor General Paul Clement to represent the House. Later, Clement, who was fired from his prestigious law practice for his efforts, would defend the law before the Supreme Court in 2013.)
September 2011- The military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was struck down and gay service members were allowed to serve openly for the first time ( The process to certify that the military was ready for the ban to be overturned was a sham and the Joint Chiefs were under tremendous pressure to approve repeal. The Commandant of the Marine Corps had the strongest reservations about how the measure would affect troop readiness and unit cohesion but those concerns were swept aside.)
May 2012– He became the first sitting President to support SSM (Vice President Joe Biden got out ahead of him in a Meet the Press interview and Obama quickly followed suit.)
January 2013– President Obama became the first president to mention the gay community in an inaugural address
June 2013- The Supreme Court overturned a key part of DOMA in the Windsor decision which meant that the federal government would recognize SSM for the purpose of benefits but states were not required to recognize them (This ruling lead to an avalanche of lawsuits from couples who lived in states which did not recognize their marriage certificates from other states.)
February 10, 2015– David Axelrod, longtime Obama adviser and confidante, revealed in his memoir “Believer: My Years in Politics” that Obama had supported SSM prior to his first presidential run (Axelrod said he counseled him to hide his true feelings on the subject because it might hurt his get-out-the-vote efforts in the Black community especially among churchgoers. He said that Obama’s difficulty with hiding his true feelings on the issue was evidenced by his halting answers on the topic in interviews. President Obama disputed some of Axelrod’s recollection of events.)
June 26, 2015-The Supreme Court struck down the remaining state bans on SSM in the 5-4 decision, Obergefell v. Hodges (That evening, White House put out a congratulatory statement and lit the residence with rainbow-colored lighting.)
This timeline in no way covers all of the Obama Administration’s actions on this issue. When it comes to federal appointments, regulatory changes, and executive orders, no President has done more to advance the cause of SSM. A Newsweek magazine cover christened him “the first gay president” in a nod to his efforts. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ activist group, has a dedicated page on their website titled ” a complete overview of President Obama’s commitment to LGBT equality”. While the President has been an advocate for the LGBT community, he has only paid lip service to the cause of religious liberty.
In a statement after the Obergefell decision, President Obama said that he understood that some might have differing opinions on the ruling.
“Opposition in some cases has been based on sincere and deeply held beliefs. All of us who welcome today’s news should be mindful of that fact; recognize different viewpoints; revere our deep commitment to religious freedom.”
There has been a noticeable change in the President’s public statements over the last several years. The man, who once said that “Americans of goodwill continue to hold a wide range of views on this issue, has reversed his position and is now using the bully pulpit of the Oval Office to denigrate those who do not share his views. Although he once voted in favor of a religious freedom law, he now lectures North Carolina and Mississippi about their “mean-spirited” measures.
Even more troubling than his conflicting statements is his use of the Education and Justice Departments to prosecute those who hold a traditional view of marriage. This shift highlights the importance of the First Amendment Defense Act and the state level battles to enact Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) which are vital to ensure that our first freedoms (speech, association, and religious exercise) are preserved for the next generation.