Mixed signals on gay marriage

Last week, I believe President Obama got it right when he told ABC’s Robin Roberts, “for me personally … I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” 

It was also a politically brave decision for Obama. Just the day before, in the critical battleground state of North Carolina, the state voted by 61 percent to 39 to enact a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Polls released this week show on balance Obama’s position might have hurt him among independents more than helped him.

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But after he took his stand, a few seconds later during the interview Obama added: “I continue to believe that this is an issue that is going to be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as marriage.”

That position is questionable as a matter of constitutional law. In 1966, the Virginia Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, upheld the state’s ban on interracial marriage — in part because “marriage has traditionally been subject to state regulation, without federal intervention, and, consequently, the regulation of marriage should be left to exclusive control by the 10th Amendment.”

But in 1967, a unanimous Supreme Court nullified Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage on the grounds it violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment. “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival,” Chief Justice Earl Warren (also author of the Brown decision) wrote. “The 14th Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations.”

So the question is, can the words “sexual preference” be inserted for the words “racial” in this sentence from the Loving case? If so, then, as in Loving, all state laws discriminating between heterosexual and same-sex couples would be unconstitutional. 

On Feb. 20 the Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, by 2-1 split court majority, narrowly ruled that the result of California’s statewide vote, Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that the decision was limited to California’s allegedly unique facts — a statewide vote withdrawing rights to same-sex marriage that local communities had previously permitted. However, the court went on to say:

“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status of human dignity of gay men and lesbians in California.” That sentence logically need not be limited to California.

In the earlier lower-court trial, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn R. Walker, originally nominated by conservative Republican President Reagan and re-nominated by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed in 1989, in an evidentiary hearing found no facts or evidence that same-sex couples cannot have just as successful and enduring marriages, cannot be just as loving with one another or cannot be just as good parents as heterosexual couples. Therefore, Judge Walker held that a ban on same-sex marriage was flat-out unconstitutional — not just in California but across the nation.

 I can understand and respect Obama for making the political and pragmatic decision to take the first, courageous step to state his own personal position supporting same-sex marriage, while allowing states and local communities some time to decide for themselves. And many pro-gay marriage strategists were happy that the 9th Circuit tried to limit the decision to the particular situation faced by California, fearing a hostile U.S. Supreme Court decision if the 9th Circuit decision had been as broad as Judge Walker’s, with the effect of striking down all state laws banning same-sex marriage.

But my visceral reaction on this issue is: Either a ban on same-sex marriage is a violation of the Constitution or it is not. It can’t be a violation of the 14th Amendment in one state but not in another.

I certainly respect those whose religious faith causes them to oppose same-sex marriage. But our Constitution should not allow religious principles to trump constitutional ones. 

If there is no fact-based evidence justifying discriminatory treatment between heterosexual and same-sex couples — and I have not seen any to date — I cannot understand allowing states to decide for themselves. State discretion wasn’t allowed for “separate but equal” segregated public education. And it shouldn’t be allowed for bans on same-sex marriage.


Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of the book Scandal: How “Gotcha” Politics Is Destroying America.