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In shift, Obama backs gay marriage

President Barack Obama was interviewed by Robin Roberts of ABC's Good Morning America in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

Pete Souza/White House/REUTERS

President Barack Obama was interviewed by Robin Roberts of ABC's Good Morning America in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

President Obama declared today that he supports gay marriage, reversing his longstanding public statements of supporting equal rights for gay couples that stopped just short of marriage.

In explaining his previous stance, Obama told ABC News, “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue. I’ve always been adamant that gays and lesbians should be treated fairly and equally,” citing the reversal of the Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell policy that barred openly gay servicemen and women from serving in the military, and the federal government no longer defending the Defense Against Marriage Act.

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“I’ve stood on the side of broader equality for the LGBT community,” the president added, “and I’d hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient ... and I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word ‘marriage’ is something that evokes powerful tradition and religious beliefs.”

But, Obama explained, in speaking with friends, family and neighbors over the course of several years, his position evolved.

“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,” he said.

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Obama’s stance puts a brighter spotlight on a major social issue that draws a clear contrast with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney – and could help both candidates energize their bases.

Romney has consistently opposed gay marriage, fighting its legalization in Massachusetts when he was governor and also saying he opposes civil unions.

He told reporters today in Oklahoma City, Ok.: “I have the same view on marriage that I had when I was governor, and that I’ve expressed many times: I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.”

Earlier, he also addressed the subject during interviews with television reporters in Colorado.

“I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name,” Romney told Denver-based KDVR-TV.

Romney was asked in a separate interview with KCNC-TV why he opposed civil unions even while supporting some domestic partnership benefits for gay couples.

“If a civil union is identical to marriage other than in the name, I don’t support that,” he said. “But I certainly recognize that hospital visitation rights and benefits of that nature may well be appropriate. And states are able to make provisions for determination of those kinds of rights as well as, if you will, benefits that might accrue to state workers.”

Obama made his declaration during a one-on-one interview at the White House with “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts. Portions of the interview will air tonight on “Nightline,” and an extended version of the interview will air Thursday on “Good Morning America.”

It also came after advocates on both sides of the issue called on him to clarify his stance.

On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden made statements that were widely interpreted as an endorsement of gay marriage.

On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said unequivocally that he believes same-sex couples should have the legal right to marry, and on Tuesday, voters in North Carolina - a pivotal swing state in this fall’s presidential election - approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in that state.

In recent days, Obama spokespeople have tried to make the subtle distinction that the president supports equal rights for same-sex couples who are already married but is not an advocate of gay couples’ right to get married anywhere in the country.

Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said Monday during a conference call with reporters that Biden’s remarks “were entirely consistent with the president’s position, which is that couples who are married, whether they are gay or heterosexual couples, are entitled to the very same rights and very same liberties.”

“When people are married, we ought to recognize those marriages and the rights to which they’re entitled,” he added.

Biden told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he is “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying [one] another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”

In that interview, Biden described the impact on him of a recent visit to the home of a gay couple that had adopted two children. The president, also, has spoken of being influenced by personal encounters with same-sex couples.

“I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage,” Obama told a group of liberal bloggers in October 2010. “But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships.”

During his unsuccessful US Senate campaign against Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, Romney said he would fight harder for the equal rights of gays and lesbians than his more liberal opponent.

But when Romney was campaigning for governor in 2002, he made clear that he opposed gay unions.

“Call me old fashioned, but I don’t support gay marriage nor do I support civil union,” he said during an October 2002 debate. “I do not favor marriage between gays. I think marriage should be preserved for a husband and a wife of different genders.”

After the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts ruled in 2003 that barring gay marriage was unconstitutional, Romney sought several legislative ways to stop gay marriage in the state. He also supported efforts, which were ultimately unsuccessful, to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

Romney has also said he would fight for a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage, and would preserve the Defense of Marriage Act.

Richard Grenell, who was an openly gay spokesman for the American Mission to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, recently quit working for the Romney campaign after his appointment came under fire from social conservatives.

A supporter of same-sex marriage, he had a mixed reaction to Obama’s statement.

“While I am pleased with President Obama’s new decision, it’s important to keep politicians from playing politics with a group’s civil rights,” he said in a statement. “The president’s timing suggests that he is once again more concerned with his own political calculations than with actual equal rights. The president could have evolved when the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, or even yesterday, before the swing state of North Carolina voted.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com.
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