President Obama’s position on marriage equality came under renewed scrutiny Monday during a press briefing at the White House when press secretary Jay Carney was asked about California’s Proposition 8, which overturned marriage rights for same-sex couples in 2008.
A Wall Street Journal reporter asked if Obama’s belief that marriage should be left to the states means California voters should decide for themselves whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage.
“I’m not disagreeing with that interpretation,” Carney said. “But he has said quite clearly, as he did with the [Defense of Marriage Act] decision, and as he did on Thursday that he believes that it’s for the states to decide.”
On Thursday — one day before New York legalized same-sex marriage —Obama reiterated his view that marriage is a state issue during an LGBT fundraiser in New York City.
In June 2008, the Alice B. Toklas Club in San Francisco announced that it had received a letter from then-Democratic presidential candidate Obama reading, “And that is why I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states.”
Asked to clarify Carney’s comments on Monday, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, replied, “The president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples and believes strongly in stopping efforts designed to take rights away. That is why he opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment and Proposition 8.”
After voters approved Prop 8 and state litigation seeking to overturn the ban failed, the American Foundation for Equal Rights filed a federal lawsuit challenging the marriage ban. Last year, a U.S. district court in San Francisco determined that Proposition 8 violated the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit is on appeal, so the fate of Prop 8 remains unknown. Some advocates say Obama’s position on marriage could have an impact on how courts examine the issue.
Carney was cautious about saying more about the president’s position on the marriage ban and maintained that Obama “very strongly supports equal rights.”
“I’m not going to put words into his mouth applying to another state,” Carney said. “You can analyze that because I haven’t heard him say that. But obviously, the DOMA decision, what he said in New York is about his belief — our belief that this is a matter the states should decide.”
In February, Obama announced that he would no longer defend DOMA in court because he believes the statute is unconstitutional. At the fundraiser on Thursday, Obama indicated he believes DOMA is unconstitutional because it interferes with a state’s right to regulate marriage.
Later, during the briefing, the issue of same-sex marriage emerged again when reporter Bill Press asked how the president can square his belief that marriage should be left to the states while at the same time saying he believes same-sex couples deserves the same rights as opposite-sex couples.
“Well, look, I’m not going to — the president has made his position clear,” Carney replied. “It’s not very useful for us to have this debate. I think the president spoke about this on Thursday, he’s spoken about it — sorry — a number of times in the past.”
Pressed further on whether Obama has “missed an opportunity” to endorse same-sex marriage prior to New York’s decision to legalize gay nuptials, Carney replied, “Again, the president — the president’s record on issues involving and of concern to the LGBT community is exemplary and we are very proud of it. He continues to fight on behalf of that community for the rights, for equal rights, and his position on New York, he, himself, rather than his press secretary, spoke at length about just a few nights ago.”
Obama has held various positions on same-sex marriage. In 1996, when running to become an Illinois state senator, Obama in a questionnaire response to what is now the Windy City Times wrote, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
But during his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said he believes marriage is between one man and one woman and backed civil unions for gay couples. Since October, Obama has suggested he could evolve on the marriage issue, but he has yet to endorse gay nuptials.
A partial transcript of the exchange between reporters and Carney during the White House news briefing follows:
Wall Street Journal: …Does that mean he also respects the outcome of democracy at work in California where voters decided to reject the idea of gay marriage?
Jay Carney: I think as you saw in the decision we announced … this administration would no longer be participants defending the Defense of Marriage Act because we don’t believe it’s constitutional. That is precisely because of his belief that this a matter that needs to be decided by the states. So without commenting on a particular other state, I think we’ve been making that clear with regard to the action in New York. …
I’m not going to put words into his mouth applying to another state. You can analyze that because I haven’t heard him say that. But obviously, the DOMA decision, what he said in New York is about his belief — our belief that this is a matter the states should decide.
Journal: And the central argument in the challenge to Proposition 8 by supporters of same-sex marriage rights is that this isn’t something that should be decided state-by-state, but there are federal rights involved —
Carney: The president very strongly supports equal rights and he’s made that clear as well, and he said it again in New York at the event that we’re discussing. …
I don’t really have a lot I can say about Proposition 8 with regards to what the president said last week. I’m not willing to go to what the president didn’t discuss. I can talk about we he did discuss.
Journal: But the proper reading of what he said — it sounds what you’re saying, and I want to be clear, is that, yes, this is up to the states, and if New York decides that they want to allow same-sex marriage, great, if California decides that they don’t want to, then that’s their decision as well.
Carney: Well, yeah, I can’t improve upon the words that the president delivered publicly — whatever night that was — Thursday night. I’m not disagreeing with that interpretation. But he has said quite clearly, as he did with the DOMA decision, and as he did on Thursday that he believes that it’s for the states to decide.
Bill Press: I want to come back to the same-sex marriage issue, if I can. If the opportunity to enjoy the same right as same-sex couples as straight couples is a basic civil right, how can you square that with saying we leave it up to the states?
Carney: Well, look, I’m not going to — the president has made his position clear. It’s not very useful for us to have this debate. I think the president spoke about this on Thursday, he’s spoke about it — sorry — a number of times in the past. So, you can take it to other places, but I think …
Press: But let me ask this, with New York being the largest state so far to recognize same-sex marriage, are you concerned that the president have missed his opportunity to lead on this issue?
Carney: Again, the president — the president’s record on issues involving and of concern to the LGBT community is exemplary and we are very proud of it. He continues to fight on behalf of that community for the rights, for equal rights, and his position on New York, he, himself, rather than his press secretary, spoke at length about just a few nights ago.