California ruling puts President Obama on the spot

Posted by Josh Gerstein on

"The culture war is back.

"A federal judge’s ruling Wednesday striking down California’s ban on the freedom to marry is a historic and possibly pivotal legal victory for gay rights advocates, but the decision also poses a formidable threat to President Barack Obama’s strategy of relegating divisive social issues to the back burner.

"U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision is just the latest in a series of rulings and high-profile legal challenges drawing public attention to gay rights issues in a sustained way for the first time since San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom grabbed headlines in 2004 by okaying marriage equality in that city.

"As gay and lesbian activists celebrate what they hope is the leading edge of a wave of momentous court rulings and legislative successes, they remain uneasy with Obama’s nuanced position on marriage for same-sex couples.

"During the 2008 campaign, Obama took what many on both sides of the freedom to marry debate viewed as a straddle. He publicly announced his opposition to marriage equality, but he also said that he opposed the California ballot measure seeking to ban it, Prop. 8— the same ban Walker ruled unconstitutional Wednesday.

"Obama explained the seeming contradiction at the time by saying that he opposes any measure singling out a group for adverse treatment by amending the U.S. Constitution or a state constitution, as Prop 8. did, even though legal experts said that was the only viable way to block marriage equality in California.

"Gay activists lauded Obama's stance, but remain disappointed and a tad puzzled by his unwillingness to simply endorse the freedom to marry.

'His position on Prop. 8 has always been clear. What has not been clear is how he squares his position for equality with his refusal to embrace actual equality in marriage. That is unclear, increasingly unclear, and there’s no good reason to explain it,' said Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry. 'That’s an unsatisfying position that does nothing but frustrate those of us who look to him as the champion he promised to be…He’s not gaining anything and Judge Walker just made that crystal clear.'

"Marriage equality opponents also view Obama’s position as unsustainable in light of Walker’s decision.

“'He’s got to show his cards,' said Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage. 'Do you support one San Francisco judge in imposing his view of marriage on the rest of the country or not?... Anyone who just looks at this from an objective point of view realizes the president’s position is untenable.'

"The White House issued a terse statement on the ruling that didn’t endorse or reject the judge’s conclusions."

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