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White House stirs gay marriage debate

White House stirs gay marriage debate

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WASHINGTON • Vice President Joe Biden predicted Friday that the evolution in thinking that will permit gays to soon serve openly in the military eventually will bring about a national consensus for same-sex marriage.

Biden's comments follow those made this week by President Barack Obama.

"I think the country's evolving," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America." And I think you're going to see, you know, the next effort is probably going to be to deal with so-called DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). He said he agreed with Obama that his position in gay marriage is "evolving."

In a news conference Wednesday and in recent interviews, Obama signaled that his position favoring civil unions is not fixed and that he may one day conclude that a committed gay couple should have the same right to marry as anyone else.

The president has not reached that point yet, though, and has given no timetable for when he may announce a change of mind, if ever.

But White House officials indicated there was more than personal reflection behind Obama's comments. An immediate goal, the White House said Thursday, is the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, that defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. The law holds that couples who don't meet this description are not eligible for federal benefits.

In his interview Friday with ABC newsman George Stephanopoulos, Biden brought up the act, a law that Congress passed in 1996 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Obama has repeatedly said he would like to see the law repealed, but the Justice Department has defended its constitutionality, which the agency is required to do.

While he hasn't made it, a declaration from a sitting president that he supports of gay marriage would be "a game changer," one proponent of gay marriage said, and would provide political cover to other politicians, especially to local and state officials as they decide which way to vote on bills permitting gay couples to wed.

Obama, using the forum of a national press conference on Wednesday, gave a window into his thinking about a volatile social issue on which there is no clear public consensus. Earlier that day, he had signed a bill repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military. So, if gays can fight and die for their country, why can't they marry people they love? Obama was asked by ABC's Jake Tapper.

"I struggle with this," the president said. "I have friends, I have people who work for me, who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. And they are extraordinary people, and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about."

Obama's views seem to be tracking those of the broader American public. Polls show that support for gay marriage is growing. A Gallup study showed that while in 1996 only 27 percent of the population believed gay marriage should be legalized, the figure had jumped to 44 percent in May of this year.

In August, 52 percent of those queried in a CNN Opinion Research poll said gay Americans 'should have a constitutional right to get married."

'Terrible mistake'

Many social conservatives, such as Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly of Ladue, refuse to believe that a majority of Americans would support gay marriage. Obama's shifting position, she said, "is the story of politics: An aggressive well-funded pressure group can achieve goals contrary to what the majority of people want. I think same-sex marriage would be a terrible mistake. I don't think there are any good arguments for it."

Gays, she said, are already free to live together. "Nobody's stopping them from shacking up," she said. "The problem is they are trying to make us respect them, and that's an interference with what we believe."

An incoming class of conservative lawmakers will have other priorities next year. A House Republican aide said Thursday that the new GOP House majority is focused on repealing Obama's health care overhaul, cutting spending and reining in government.

"As far as I know, there are no plans in doing that (addressing the gay marriage issue) in the opening months of Congress," said the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

Because marriage is controlled by the states, there is little Obama can do on his own to expand gay marriage. But a strong public position by the president in favor of it could help shape public consensus.

At present, five states and the District of Columbia license same-sex marriages.

Should Obama come out in favor of same-sex marriages, "It would be a game changer," said Denis Dison, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay candidates.

Even Obama's admission that he's wrestling with the issue, Dison added, "is a pretty big deal."

Obama suggested he has been sensitized to the gay marriage issue by the raft of gay couples he knows who are in strong relationships. Many now work for him.

He has appointed more than 150 openly gay people to his posts in administration — more than all other presidents combined, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," which came out in 2006, Obama signaled that his opposition to gay marriage, rooted in his religious views, wasn't unshakeable.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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