Dissecting President Obama's 'Evolution' on Gay Marriage

Supreme Court considers same-sex marriage a year after Obama backed the unions.

March 22, 2013, 4:25 PM

March 25, 2013 — -- The Supreme Court will hear arguments in two landmark cases on same-sex marriage this week, nearly 11 months after President Obama first announced his support of marriage for same-sex couples, a decision he reached as part of an "evolution" over the years.

In an interview with ABC News' Robin Roberts in May, President Obama stated his personal support for same-sex marriage, becoming the first president to back marriage publicly for gay and lesbian couples.

"For me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," Obama told Roberts in May of 2012.

While voicing his support at the time, the president said that he had no intention to "nationalize" the issue and hoped it would be left up to the states.

"I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn't want to nationalize the issue," he told Roberts. "There's a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized. What I'm saying is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place, at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing."

But less than a year later, the Supreme Court is taking up two potentially transformative cases on the issue of gay marriage at a time when public support for same-sex marriages has jumped. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released last week found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples, and in the past month, two heavy hitters in politics -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio -- announced their support of same-sex marriage.

In an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos earlier this month, the president said he hopes the Supreme Court will grant same-sex couples the right to marry. When asked whether he could think of a compelling reason for states to bar same-sex marriage, he said "I can't, personally. I cannot."

"Ultimately, I think that same-sex couples should be able to marry. That's my personal position," Obama told Stephanopoulos. "My hope is that -- the court looks at the evidence and -- and in the California case, for example, the only reason presented for treating gays and lesbians differently was, 'Well, they're gay and lesbian.' There wasn't a real rationale beyond that. In fact, all the other rights ... responsibilities of a civil union were identical to marriage.

"It's just you couldn't call it marriage. Well, at that point, what you're really saying is, 'We're just going to treat these folks differently because of who they are.' And I do not think ... that's who are as Americans. And ... frankly, I think, American attitudes have evolved, just like mine have, pretty substantially and fairly quickly, and I think that's a good thing."

The Supreme Court Tuesday will consider Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. The court will hear arguments Wednesday on a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which issues the same definition of marriage as Prop 8 but also denies federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in their states.

In February 2011, the Justice Department said it would continue to enforce DOMA, but it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the law.

The Obama administration waded into the Proposition 8 fight for the first time last month when the Justice Department filed a legal brief asking the Supreme Court to strike down the California measure barring same-sex marriage. While the president himself did not issue a written argument for the legal brief, he suggested to reporters earlier this month that his interpretation of the Constitution provides a fundamental right to same-sex marriage.

Obama's 'Evolution' On Gay Marriage

In 1996, Obama, then an Illinois state senate candidate, seemed to back marriages for same-sex couples when he signed a statement in response to a questionnaire that read "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." The statement was later publicly disavowed by White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, who claimed in June 2011 that the questionnaire was "actually filled out by someone else."

But when Obama ran for Senate in 2004, he provided a definition of marriage that adhered more to the classifications provided by Prop 8 and DOMA, citing his faith as guiding his position on same-sex marriage at the time.

"What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman," then-U.S. Senate candidate Obama said in an interview with WTTW Chicago public television. "What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it's not simply the two persons who are meeting.

"That doesn't mean that that necessarily translates into a position on public policy or with respect to civil unions. What it does mean is that we have a set of traditions in place that, I think, need to be preserved, but I also think we need to make sure that gays and lesbians have the same set of basic rights that are in place," he said.

But, as president, Obama, who supported civil unions for gay couples for the better part of his first term, admitted he was "evolving" on the issue at a time when public opinion had started to shift toward a greater acceptance of same-sex marriage.

"My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this. At this point, what I've said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have," Obama said in a White House news conference in 2010. "I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think is something that we're going to continue to debate and I, personally, am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.

"I think it's important for us to work through these issues because each community is going to be different, each state is going to be different," Obama said 2011 in response to a question about New York legalizing same-sex marriage. "I think what you're seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they've got to be treated like every other American.

"And I think that principle will win out. It's not going to be perfectly smooth, and it turns out that the president -- I've discovered since I've been in this office -- can't dictate precisely how this process moves."

Seven months before he publicly supported same-sex marriage, Obama told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that he was "still working on" considering a move from supporting civil unions for same-sex couples to backing same-sex marriage.

"I'm still working on it," Obama said in 2011. "I probably won't make news right now, George. But I think that there's no doubt that as I see friends, families, children of gay couples who are thriving, you know, that has an impact on how I think about these issues."

The president cited those same friends and families when he publicly announced his support for gay marriage last year, telling Roberts that he believes people will become more comfortable with the idea in the years to come.

"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," Obama said.

ABC News' Ariane de Vogue and Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.