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Civil right or moral issue? Reaction to Obama's same-sex marriage stand runs gamut

By Dale Singer, Beacon staff

Was President Obama’s expression of support for same-sex marriage a profile in courage on civil rights or a wrongheaded view on a highly politicized, fundamentally religious issue?

Not surprisingly, the reaction to the president’s statement Wednesday  depends largely on the prism through which people have viewed the issue since it began.

For Helen Hull Hitchcock, president of the group Women for Faith and Family, Obama’s interview was a disappointing stance on a “seriously divisive issue.” She knows that some people describe it as a civil rights question, but she doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not exactly sure I see what the connection is argued to be,” she said. “Racial discrimination has nothing to do with one’s choice of behavior. The color of your skin is not intrinsic to your humanity in any way. It makes no sense that there would be discrimination on the basis of race, where it makes every kind of sense that one’s personal choices about one’s moral behavior would make a difference.”To A.J.

Bockelman, executive director of the group PROMO, whose motto is “Promoting equality for all Missourians,” the issue is one of civil rights, but he says people shouldn’t look at it in the same way they viewed racial struggles of the 1960s.

“This is not about seeing the same level of violence that we saw in the ’60s against people of color,” he said. “The lunch-counter issue isn’t the same for us. Access to services is how it plays out for us. Older couples in the state of Missouri, couples that have been together 30, 40, 50, 60 years, are going into assisted living and going back into the closet because we don’t have any protection. We are not able to be out, not able to be together.”

 His views are echoed by sources in the Beacon’s Public Insight Network, who say the president’s viewpoint fulfills the Constitution’s promise of equality for every American.

“It’s a clear statement of a position by a sitting president that justice for all means justice for all,” said Philip Deitch, a longtime activist and member of the Stonewall Democrats of Eastern Missouri.

“It’s in line with where the nation is, from all the polling I’ve seen. It’s not a radical step. It’s where the

country is.”

‘Very disappointing’

Hitchcock said Obama’s statement was not a surprise, but she termed it “very disappointing” that the president would take such a stance against what she called the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church and other Christian and non-Christian denominations.

“The nature of marriage is between a man and a woman,” she said. “It’s connected very much to family and the future of the human race.”

Asked about her view that the issue is not the same as racial discrimination becase it involves a choice, she said the jury is out whether homosexuality is intrinsic or a choice, and added:

“Someone might say, ‘I want to marry my brother or my sister because that’s what I want.’ Obviously the laws against incest would not be considered something that would be a matter of equal rights. That would not be considered discrimination. I think we’re talking about some of the same things here. But it is difficult and it is confusing, especially when you have prominent people making statements like this. I’m saying that the right to marry whoever you want to is not a universal right.”

Hitchcock said she wouldn’t necessarily agree that Obama’s statement was a watershed moment, “but I would consider it highly significant, making a statement that goes against the entire experience of human society.”

And she wasn’t sure what the effect of the president’s stance might be on his re-election chances in November.

“For some people,” Hitchcock said, “this might be the straw that broke the camel’s back. But there was quite a bit of straw on the camel’s back already.”

A wave of support

Bockelman sees Obama’s views as an extension of what he called a generally supportive stance from his administration – and a sign that he has evolved to a point where the majority of Americans are now.

“Public polling has risen considerably over the years,” he said, “and it’s polling about 60 percent. You are seeing a wave of people in support of same-sex marriage now.”

Still, given the upcoming election and the partisan tone in Washington, the president’s support wasn’t necessarily easy to express, he added.

“Just like with JFK, we look for profiles in courage,” Bockelman said. “This is a moment for Obama that is a profile in courage. I believe it helps him in the end. I believe people are looking for a leader, and leaders don’t vacillate. He vacillated on this issue for a number of years, and he has finally taken a stand.”

So how will that stand play out in the expected Obama-Romney matchup this fall?

“I think it is creating quite a bit of news right now,” he said, “but by November, after it will have played out, I think it will be one piece of the chorus in the background. It will be a distinctive voice, but in a state like Missouri – it is a challenge in the state of Missouri.”

Time to celebrate

Deitch, with the Stonewall Democrats, viewed the announcement as such a major step that the group organized a celebration rally Thursday at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse at 5:30 p.m. He views the White House support as the fulfillment of a long-delayed pledge.

“We’re in a country that promises equality for everyone,” he said. “The constitution does not say ‘with the exception of.’ We made some mistakes when the country was formed, and we have corrected them, in terms of racial injustice and women’s rights. This is just another step toward ensuring the original vision of our country as a home for equality. This is just another opportunity to correct who we are as a country.”

Contrary to those who view this is a religious issue, Deitch said marriage is clearly a civil matter.

“We are a country of different religions,” he said. “Everyone should be able to celebrate their own religious faith without imposing parts of it on somebody else. The clergy of many faiths would be happy to perform these marriages if they were legal.”

‘This won’t go away’

Judi Linville, who recalls going door to door in 2004 in an unsuccessful effort to defeat a Missouri constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, thinks Obama had to come out and make a definitive statement on an issue that is likely to stick around for a while.

“I thought, well, he is going to have to fish or cut bait on this,” she said. “Otherwise, it was going to become something that detracts from his message. I would hope that people would concentrate on issues like the economy and the environment, but I have a feeling this won’t go away.

“I think

it will galvanize ultra conservatives of the Republican Party, and I think it will galvanize people who are ready to come out against Obama even more. I hope it would galvanize some of the people who voted for Obama in 2008 with a lot of hope that he would be a leader, not only on this issue but on some others. They have been kind of sitting back, sitting on their wallets and sitting on their time, and I would hope this would get some people back in the fold.”

She said she has gay people in her family in long-term relationships, so she is sensitive to the view that marriage is a basic human right. She added:

“For me, it is a religious issue in the sense that if you believe we are all made in the image of God, as I do, I don’t see how we can say that the person who has not made a choice to be different, but finds himself or herself attracted to the same sex, can’t have things the same as it is for others. They are simply living out how they were created in the first place.

“I come at the religious part of it from that perspective. My religion is both the Bible and experience, not simply one rigid interpretation of two passages from Leviticus.”

For that reason, she views it as a civil rights issue and a religious one.

“Many people who write about this and think about this and argue about this don’t see any difference between this as a religious right or a civil right,” Linville said. “I do. I chose to be married in a church because it was important to me. But if I just wanted to be married, I could have just gone to the local courthouse.”

This report appeared first in the St. Louis Beacon on May 10, 2012

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