President Barrack Obama’s pronouncement in favor of gay marriage certainly qualifies as both historic and courageous, not only for its content but also for its timing. Some critics already see some political machinations in this statement, which came shortly after Vice President Joe Biden seemed to indicate support for gay marriage. The polling data, however, would indicate that the president made a somewhat risky move whose ramifications remain uncertain.
The issue of gay marriage has been a polarizing issue more so in America than in my home country of Canada. In the 2004 presidential election, the Bush campaign cleverly used state referenda on banning gay marriage or defending traditional marriage as an instrument to bring out the religious right in favor the president. Considering the narrow victory by Mr. Bush over Senator John Kerry, it has become conventional wisdom to consider the tactic a success.
While support for gay marriage has steadily increased since the 2004 election, 30 states still have bans on gay marriage. Just this week, North Carolina voted to inscribe in its state constitution a ban on same-sex marriage. So the Obama statement is not a slam-dunk sell to the voters.
We in Canada legalized same sex marriage in 2005 after the Canadian Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. Legislation was then introduced, and the governing party even allowed its members a free vote. The legislation passed with very little controversy.
It is important to note that the issue in Canada had gone through numerous court decisions (all in favor) before making its way to the Supreme Court. While religion may appear to be less a factor in our politics than in the U.S., religious traditions do exist. Yet, religious opposition played little or no role. It seems that the separation of Church and State had become very much a part of the Canadian political culture. Today, no political party, including the more right-wing governing Conservatives, would ever consider repealing it.
In the U.S., despite the Second Amendment separating Church and State, we have seen cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage become wedge issues in the political arena with the religious right playing a very influential role. As a result, politics has played a major role in the gay marriage debate as we saw with Proposition 8 in California, and the recent ban initiative in North Carolina. The issue has yet to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite some favorable lower Court rulings.
The fact is the nation is evolving (to use an Obama term) and it seems to be in the direction of the president. Back in 2000, in an effort to experience first-hand an American presidential campaign, I volunteered in Democratic candidate Bill Bradley’s campaign where he described gay rights and same-sex marriage as a civil right in line with the equal protection amendment (14). It was an innovative positioning then, but one which is now becoming an acceptable and reasonable approach.
Same-sex marriage in a civil and democratic society is no longer seen as the sole domain of organized religion. While America is known for its religious freedom, gay rights cannot be treated through the prism of religious precepts. True, we should respect those who, for religious values oppose same-sex marriage, but the terms of the debate have shifted. It has become a matter of equality and civil rights.
The consensus on this is the law of the land in Canada. I believe it is a matter of time for it to become so in the United States. President Obama, in his statement this week, may have pushed the growing consensus further, and America is better for it.
*John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.