Just over a week has passed since President Obama personally endorsed same-sex marriage; his support is a groundbreaking moment for gay rights activists across the U.S. But, in order for Obama’s words to have an impact on national policy, he will need to do much more than “personally” support gay marriage.
Gay rights are civil rights that should not be left up to the states. As recent legislation in Rhode Island, Colorado, and North Carolina demonstrates, federal laws are necessary to enforce the right of same-sex couples to marry.
In Rhode Island, Governor Lincoln Chafee ordered all state agencies to recognize same sex marriages performed out of state as legal. This change will dramatically alter the health and life insurance benefits for same sex couples, offering them the same benefits available to heterosexual couples. Since civil unions are permitted in Rhode Island, but gay marriage is still illegal, Chafee’s order makes it easier for same-sex couples to live in Rhode Island if they choose to marry in another state.
The implications of Chafee’s order go beyond Rhode Island — he sets a precedent for other states where legislation to legalize gay marriage has been blocked. Chafee believes that Rhode Island is “overdue” to legalize same-sex marriage, and he has taken Obama’s support as an opportunity to advocate for gay rights in his state. However, other states view Obama’s support for gay marriage as a threat and are hurriedly acting to not only block same-sex marriage, but also prevent civil unions between same-sex couples.
Republican lawmakers in Colorado voted down a bill to legalize civil unions between same-sex couples 5-4 on Monday. One day prior to Obama's announcement North Carolina passed an amendment that says, “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” This direct assertion that North Carolina would oppose any legislation to make same-sex marriage federally legal, indicates that if the issue is left up to individual states, same-sex couples will fall victim to a range of restrictive measures instead of having their rights protected at the national level.
Giving states the ability to curtail civil rights is not acceptable. The current patchwork of attitudes to same-sex marriage across the states is an insult to the equality and individual freedom that the U.S. stands for. Other states that have recently taken strong positions on same-sex marriage include South Dakota and Virginia. If Obama’s words are to have any real political significance, he will need to work against states that prevent same-sex couples from getting married by making their right to marry nationally legal.
According to Obama, historically the rights of same-sex couples have been determined at the state level. The first step he can take to change this would be to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman. Repealing this act will prevent states from defining marriage in terms that prevent same-sex marriage or civil unions.
An issue that is fundamentally about equality is far too important to be determined at the state level. The U.S. has reached a critical point in the movement for gay rights. Obama’s open support for same-sex marriage has the potential to usher in a new era of justice — but only if he does not allow the states to stop him.