Even as opinion polls show growing approval of same-sex marriage nationally, opposition remains strong in some battleground states, as North Carolina voted to ban gay marriage and Colorado Republicans killed a measure to approve civil unions.
Such divisions also reflect the split in Washington, where President Barack Obama has been reluctant to echo endorsements of gay marriage by Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“I don’t think it could cost him the election, but I think they’re scared it might, and they don’t want to take the chance,” said Jim Williams, issue polling specialist for Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based Democratic research firm. “Politicians are cautious people. Public opinion on gay marriage is shifting very quickly.”
In an interview today on ABC News, Obama said same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the first time he’s declared support for making gay marriage legal.
“I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama said.
As North Carolina yesterday passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a contract between a man and a woman, a Colorado legislative committee approved a bill allowing homosexuals to enter into civil unions. Republicans in the Colorado House later killed the measure by delaying the vote past a midnight deadline.
Saying his office received 500 calls and e-mails this morning on the issue, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called today for a special session to debate the civil-unions bill and other measures. He said he would announce details tomorrow.
“I got a call last night that asked, ‘If not now, when?’” Hickenlooper said at a press conference.
Gay-rights advocates had called on Obama to express unqualified support for same-sex marriage. While he did so today, the issue continues to pose risks for the president in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, said Paul Allen Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus.
“Ohio is shaping up as a very close contest,” Beck said. “Ohio has a large Catholic population that is working class in orientation and hasn’t been particularly warm toward Obama. I’m sure he’s concerned about that. You worry about even one little change in your posture that has the effect of siphoning off some voters to the other candidate.”
In a May 6 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Biden said he is “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
The next day, White House spokesman Jay Carney deflected repeated questions from reporters trying to draw out Obama’s opinion on gay marriage, which the president had said was “evolving.” The president supports civil unions and federal rights for gay couples and opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, according to the White House website.
Obama’s opponent, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a gay marriage opponent, also recently found himself in the crosshairs of the debate when his openly gay foreign policy spokesman, Richard Grenell, resigned May 1 -- less than two weeks after being hired -- following criticism from social conservatives.
Civil-rights scholars said the language Obama and his advisers have used to define their position on gay rights is evocative of how the electorate defines their views on the politically divisive issue.
“Where he is when he says his view is evolving is right on point with where Americans are, on average,” said Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University. “What he is saying is peoples’ views are changing. People are still trying to get their head around an idea that seemed very foreign to them a few years ago.”
Just a decade ago, pundits considered the gay-rights issue “politically poisonous,” said Steve Sanders, a visiting assistant law professor at the University of Michigan.
Today, half of the nation’s voters favor same-sex marriages, with 50 percent of Americans responding to a Gallup poll released yesterday saying such marriages should be recognized as legal and 48 percent saying such unions should not be legal.
Gay-rights advocates hope to capitalize on voters’ growing support of equality measures at the ballot box this fall.
“This is the first election year in which the marriage equality side thinks in some states it might be helpful,” said Jane Schacter, professor of law at Stanford University. “It’s different from the political calculation made in the past.”
Petitions are circulating on both sides of the issue. In Ohio and Nebraska, signature gatherers are circulating petitions that would overturn bans on same-sex marriage. In Maryland and Washington, initiatives are circulating that would overturn state laws allowing civil unions and marriage equality.
“Same-sex marriage proponents are using the ballot this year in a way I haven’t seen in the past,” said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “I’m seeing more petitions filed on this issue than I have before.”
The North Carolina measure that passed yesterday strengthened an existing law against gay marriage to prohibit civil unions as well, said Maxine Eichner, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill.
“There are three states that I would put in the category of having language as broad as ours, which are South Carolina, Idaho and Michigan,” she said.
In Denver, momentum behind a bill that would have allowed gay couples many of the same rights as married people surprised even some supporters. The measure, which would have permitted gay and lesbian couples to inherit property, take family leave to care for a partner, to visit a partner in the hospital and to make medical and end-of-life decisions for a partner, passed three Republican-led House committees before being derailed on the Republican-controlled House floor.
It’s the closest a civil union measure has come to passing in Colorado, where voters in 2006 rejected a domestic partnerships ballot initiative and amended the state constitution to declare marriage is between a man and a woman.
“Justice is knocking on the door of the Colorado House, but its cousin injustice is doing everything to close that door,” Democratic Senator Lucia Guzman said at a rally on the capitol steps yesterday. “If they shut the door, those of us in Colorado know how we’re going to vote this fall.”