In Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, Barack Obama’s newly articulated support for gay marriage had parishioners weighing religious tradition against a push for a new civil right.
In Byram, Mississippi, Janis Lane, 64, said the Democratic president merely disclosed what she and other opponents suspected he believed all along. In San Francisco, his words were greeted with champagne.
Interviews across the U.S. yesterday showed complex and varying views about same-sex marriage, an issue that came to the fore less than a decade ago and that pits an increasing acceptance of gays against deep-seated beliefs.
“I don’t think it’s right, because it says in the Bible that marriage shouldn’t be between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman,” said Ryan Evans, 34, a Baltimore truck driver hanging out on a friend’s stoop. “But it’s a new day. So if they want to do it, let them do it.”
Obama’s comments yesterday in an interview that “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” marked the first time he spoke out in favor of allowing gays to marry. Both the president’s supporters and opponents praised him for clarifying his views, providing a clear contrast with Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who reaffirmed his opposition.
Against the Current
As a candidate for president in 2008, Obama opposed same- sex marriage. Since late 2010, he had said his views were “evolving.” His new stance came a day after North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage and Republican lawmakers in Colorado killed a measure to approve civil unions, illustrating the political risks in battleground states.
After decades of increasing visibility and gay activism, same-sex marriage became a national issue in 2003. That year, a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling moved the state toward the practice, leading President George W. Bush to call for a constitutional amendment permitting marriage only between a man and a woman. In November 2004, as Bush won re-election, voters approved bans in 11 states.
More than three dozen states now have measures that bar recognition of gay marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and such unions aren’t recognized by the federal government. Obama said he was expressing his personal view and that its legality was a matter for states to decide.
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Washington, D.C., issue marriage licenses to same- sex couples, while Maryland and Washington state have approved doing so with laws that have yet to take effect.
New York’s same-sex marriage law passed last year, and two days later, Manhattan’s gay-pride parade turned into a rolling celebration of matrimony. Yesterday, the response to the president’s news was subdued in Chelsea, a diverse neighborhood that draws all varieties of New Yorker with its restaurants and nightlife for both straights and gays.
At a Starbucks, Maurice McKnight, 38, a heterosexual iron worker, said his 9-year-old daughter, Amya, could speak for them both.
“I think everyone should be allowed to get married,” she said. “It’s not fair if they can’t have a happy life with someone they love.”
Polls have shown momentum shifting in support of same-sex marriage, particularly among the young. A survey released last month by the Pew Research Center showed the public in favor by 47 to 43 percent. In 2004, opponents led supporters 2-to-1.
Another finding: Equal numbers hold strong opinions, the first time that passionate proponents have shown the same strength as their foes. In 2004, those strongly opposed outnumbered those strongly in favor by 3-to-1.
Bernadette Smith of Grandville, Michigan, a state that will play a key role in this year’s presidential election, said gay marriage is anathema to the traditional family.
“Our founding fathers had a biblical world view, and so do I, and so does most of the country,” said Smith, 48, a black mother of seven who’s married to a pastor of a nondenominational church. “Homosexuals are going against that world view.”
At Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, some coming to the first night of the Spring Back to Life revival said they were surprised and disappointed by Obama’s declaration. Carla Jones, 49, said she was glad Obama spoke.
“Given that my daughter is gay, I think there is a need for a lot of tolerance,” she said. “If she decided to change tomorrow I would be happy. But now, she is what she is.”
In San Francisco, long known for its embrace of tolerance, community leaders gathered to celebrate with champagne in the Castro district, the epicenter of the city’s gay life.
In 2004, the city allowed gays to marry, prompting a court case that eventually allowed same-sex nuptials in California for five months, until a referendum in 2008 took the right away. The question is before a federal appeals court.
Tony Buckman, a 47-year-old public-health worker from Berkeley, pointed to his wedding ring and said Obama “evolved to the right decision.”
“It means a lot to me personally,” Buckman said. “It’s very validating to have a president who you feel like supports you as a person and as a human being. And I’m very proud of Obama.”
To contact the reporters on this story: William Selway in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org