WASHINGTON – President Obama says his evolution toward support for gay marriage influenced the Justice Department’s decision to weigh in on the Supreme Court case challenging California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“As everybody here knows, last year, upon a long period of reflection, I concluded that we cannot discriminate against same-sex couples when it comes to marriage,” Obama told reporters Friday, the day after the U.S. solicitor general filed a brief in the case challenging California’s Proposition 8 ban.
“When the Supreme Court essentially called the question by taking this case about California's law, I didn't feel like that was something that this administration could avoid. I felt it was important for us to articulate what I believe and what this administration stands for,” Obama said.
The Obama administration’s brief asks the justices to overturn the California ban and for the first time argues that the Constitution protects an equal right to marry for gays and lesbians.
Obama opposed the California law even before coming out in support of gay marriage this spring. As he announced the shift in position, the president described it as a personal decision and said he continued to believe that the matter should be left to the states to decide.
On Friday, Obama said he saw “state-by-state basis progress being made, more and more states recognizing same-sex couples.” But he said he also believed the California law was discriminatory and “if the Supreme Court asks me or my attorney general or a solicitor general, do we think that meets constitutional muster, I felt it was important for us to answer that question honestly, and the answer is no,” he said.
Obama did not completely abandon his state-by-state position in the brief filed Thursday. Rather than ask the justices to overturn all same-sex marriage bans, the administration chose a legal argument that applies directly in only a handful of states.
The brief argued that because those states have already granted same-sex couples nearly all the rights of marriage through civil unions, withholding the designation of marriage is discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.
Asked why he chose the more modest scope for the brief, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, said he believed the argument could lead to broad change.
“What we've said is that same-sex couples are a group, a class that deserves heightened scrutiny, that the Supreme Court needs to ask the state why it's doing it. And if the state doesn't have a good reason, it should be struck down,” Obama said.
“The court may decide that if it doesn't apply in this case, it probably can't apply in any case. There is no good reason for it. If I were on the court, that would probably be the view that I'd put forward,” he said. “But I'm not a judge. I'm the president.”