Vice President Joe Biden appeared to make news on "Meet the Press" yesterday with a clear statement backing full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Obama administration staff immediately tried to deny that Biden had said anything newsworthy.
UPDATE: Added information below about the debate over endorsing marriage equality in the Democratic Party's national platform and the honor three ousted Iowa Supreme Court justices will receive later today.
Click here to watch a video clip of Biden's comments. NBC's David Gregory noted that President Barack Obama has said his position on same-sex marriage is "evolving" and asked whether Biden's opinion has also evolved. Excerpt from Biden's answer:
"Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."
Gregory followed up by asking whether the Obama administration would support marriage equality in a second term. Biden said he didn't know about that but highlighted several of Obama's pro-LGBT policies: repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, an executive order saying hospitals that receive federal funding can't discriminate against same-sex couples.
LGBT advocacy groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign quickly issued statements welcoming Biden's remarks. But not so fast:
Biden's own office walked back the vice president's comments, or at least denied that anything new had come out of the interview. "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 rollback those rights," a Biden spokesperson said in a statement to TPM. "That's why we stopped defending the constitutionality of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in legal challenges and support legislation to repeal it. 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."
David Axelrod, a top political adviser to President Obama, took issue with a statement by NBC's Chuck Todd that Biden had gone "farther" on this issue than Obama.
What VP said-that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights-is precisely POTUS's position.
I don't know who the Obama team thinks they are kidding with this hair-splitting. I'm glad the administration is no longer defending Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in court. Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage rights will say that is tantamount to supporting gay marriage everywhere in the country. Maybe holding back on full support for marriage equality is Obama's signal to voters in places like Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado that he respects their own states' decision to ban same-sex marriage either by statute or by constitutional amendment.
Some LGBT advocacy groups and eleven state Democratic Party chairs are pushing for the Democratic Party's 2012 national platform to embrace marriage equality. However, I don't believe Obama's loyalists on the platform committee will allow that to happen. Note that Iowa Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky, an early and steadfast Obama backer, was not one of the eleven state party leaders who called for including such language in the DNC's platform.
Within the context of state politics, Dvorsky and other top IDP officials are 100 percent supportive of marriage rights for same-sex couples. The Iowa Democratic Party's 2008 platform endorsed "marriage equality for all Americans," and the 2010 state party platform repeated those sentiments. The Iowa Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in Iowa in April 2009.
UPDATE: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on MSNBC on May 7 that he supports marriage equality. Duncan's an old friend of the president's, so it's possible that he is clearing the path for Obama to "come out of the closet" on this issue. My money's on Obama sticking with the present "against discrimination but not for full equality" course.
SECOND UPDATE: The three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were not retained in the 2010 elections will receive the 2012 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award later today.
Former Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and former justices David Baker and Michael Streit were chosen in recognition of the political courage and judicial independence each demonstrated in setting aside popular opinion to uphold the basic freedoms and security guaranteed to all citizens under the Iowa constitution.
It's too bad that the author of the Iowa Supreme Court's Varnum v Brien ruling, Mark Cady, won't share in this honor. District Court Judge Robert Hanson should be recognized as well for his solid, well-researched lower-court ruling in the same case (issued in August 2007). Polk County voters retained Hanson in the 2010 election. Last year Hanson answered a few questions about the case from the Sioux City Journal.
The New York Times' Frank Bruni published his interview with Ternus over the weekend. Excerpt:
Until she encountered so much religious opposition to the court's decision, some of it from Catholics, she was a loyal member of her local Catholic parish. Two of her three children graduated from Catholic high schools. One went to Notre Dame University. [...]
I asked about gay people in her life. She mentioned a man who lived in a nearby apartment at college and an architect she has worked with. "But was my best friend gay or anything like that?" she said. "No." Nor are any relatives, as far as she knows.
She said that after the ruling, "when I saw and heard the reaction of people whom it actually impacted, I just couldn't - I mean - it was amazing to me. I just had never been conscious of how meaningful it was to gay and lesbian couples."
Ternus spent her early legal career as a litigator specializing in insurance law. She was appointed to the Supreme Court, her first judgeship, in 1993, by a Republican governor. In Iowa, voters weigh in at later intervals, usually every eight years, but many don't bother to. Their rejection of Ternus, Baker and Streit was the first such dismissal of Supreme Court justices in the history of the state's current system.
SHE said that she and the other justices knew there was risk in taking on the same-sex marriage case and began researching it months before hearing arguments. They agonized over the wording of the decision.
As for the decision itself, they learned in the first hours of discussion that none of them saw any way to square the marriage ban with equal-protection language. "Everyone's jaws dropped - that we had a unanimous decision," she recalled.
THIRD UPDATE: Bob Vander Plaats' organization The FAMiLY Leader had nothing to say earlier this year when leading Iowa politicians feted the vice president of China, but the group was quick to condemn the JFK Library Foundation award in this press release today.
The FAMiLY LEADER Honors Iowans with "Bold and Courageous" Award
The vote of Iowans Contradicted by JFK Library Award
Pleasant Hill, Iowa. - The FAMiLY LEADER does not agree that Justices Ternus, Streit, and Baker showed courage or "uncommon valor" to warrant a Profile in Courage Award™. Instead, The FAMiLY LEADER chooses to recognize and honor the approximately 525,000 Iowans who had the courage to remove these three activist Iowa Supreme Court Justices in a resounding referendum by "We the People".
On November 2, 2010, well above one-half million Iowans (over 54% of all voters) voted to oust all three Iowa Supreme Court Justices who were up for retention. In a historic retention election, Supreme Court Justices Marsha Ternus, David Baker, and Michael Streit were removed from the bench. The election of 2010 establishes the first time an Iowa Supreme Court Justice has been rejected by voters since the current retention system began in 1962.
The Profile in Courage Award™ is presented annually to "public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences". Caroline Kennedy, President of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, said, "This year's Profile in Courage Award honorees have shown uncommon valor as public servants." The award will be presented today, May 7th, in Boston, MA at the JFK Library.
Bob Vander Plaats, President & CEO of The FAMiLY LEADER, said, "This year's JFK Library's award applauds the abuse of power for agenda acceleration. This elitist award is a direct insult to over one-half million informed and constitutionally astute Iowans who voted to remove three activist judges. The people of Iowa recognized that the judges making their decision on April 3, 2009, exemplified judicial overreach via their attempt to make and execute law from the bench."
Vander Plaats concluded, "Iowans should be proud of their stand for freedom rather than their submitting to tyranny. The Justices' opinion was neither courageous nor constitutional. Thus, Iowans made it clear that 'We the people' and not 'We the Courts' are the final arbiters of this important constitutional and societal matter."