President Barack Obama’s education secretary on Monday entered the gay marriage debate, giving his unequivocal support to the idea that same-sex couples should have the right to wed.
Arne Duncan’s intervention comes just one day before a crucial vote to amend the North Carolina state constitution to ban gay marriage, and was seen as a far stronger endorsement of the issue than that given by Vice President Joe Biden over the weekend.
Duncan becomes the third member of the administration to come out in favor of the issue. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan became the first sitting Cabinet member to back same-sex unions in November.
Immediately, gay-rights supporters started trumpeting Duncan’s controversial stance. Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese issued a statement saying it was particularly important because of his Cabinet responsibility.
“In supporting marriage equality, he communicates to all students that they deserve an equal shot at the American dream of love, family and equality,” said Solmonese.
Duncan’s support for gay marriage came on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin started the interview by asking him, “Do you think that same-sex men and women should be able to get legally married in the United States.”
Before Duncan could even answer, Halperin’s co-interviewer, Andrea Mitchell, interjected. “Oh, come on. You’re gonna start there?” she asked in disbelief.
Duncan answered simply, “Yes, I do.” Then Halperin asked him, “Have you ever said that publicly before?” to which the secretary responded, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked publicly.”
Biden on Sunday gave his support to gay marriage but was not as direct as Duncan. "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press.”
"Quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."
He then said the situation is “evolving” as “the social culture” changes, claiming that the sitcom “Will and Grace” had done more than anything else “to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far."
But then Biden pointed out that he is only the vice president and that it is Obama who sets policy on such matters, and his office quickly issued a statement clouding the issue still further.
“The vice president was saying what the president has said previously — that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans, and that we oppose any effort to roll back those rights,” said the statement.
“Beyond that, the vice president was expressing that he too is evolving on the issue, after meeting so many committed couples and families in this country."
After Biden’s comments, presidential adviser David Axelrod tweeted, “What VP said — that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights — is precisely POTUS's position."
Obama’s own views on gay marriage have been conflicted. While running for the Illinois state Senate in 1996, he told a gay newspaper, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages,” but since then his campaigns have claimed he really meant civil unions, which do not carry all the rights of marriage.
Last June, an unidentified Democratic strategist close to the White House told The New York Times that Obama’s views were still evolving and he had not reached a position where he was fully in favor. However, the strategist said, advisers were “looking at the tactics of how this might be done if the president chose to do it.”
However Obama decided last year to stop defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, and he has urged North Carolina voters to reject the constitutional amendment measure on Tuesday.
Amendment One would define marriage as being between a man and a woman and make it the only domestic legal union that would be valid in the Tar Heel State. Opponents say it is unnecessary to amend the state constitution as North Carolina already has a law in place that bans gay marriage.
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