WASHINGTON (AP) — In a historic argument for gay rights, President Barack Obama on Thursday urged the Supreme Court to overturn California's same-sex marriage ban and turn a skeptical eye on similar prohibitions across the country.
The Obama administration's friend-of-the-court brief marked the first time a U.S. president has urged the high court to expand the right of gays and lesbians to wed. The filing unequivocally calls on the justices to strike down California's Proposition 8 ballot measure, although it stops short of the soaring rhetoric on marriage equality Obama expressed in his inaugural address in January.
California is one of eight states that give gay couples all the benefits of marriage through civil unions or domestic partnership, but don't allow them to wed. The brief argues that in granting same-sex couples those rights, California has already acknowledged that gay relationships bear the same hallmarks as straight ones.
"They establish homes and lives together, support each other financially, share the joys and burdens of raising children, and provide care through illness and comfort at the moment of death," the administration wrote.
The brief marks the president's most expansive view of gay marriage and signals that he is moving away from his previous assertion that states should determine their own marriage laws. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, signed off on the administration's legal argument last week following lengthy discussions with Attorney General Eric Holder and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.
In a statement following the filing, Holder said "the government seeks to vindicate the defining constitutional ideal of equal treatment under the law."
Obama's position, if adopted by the court, would likely result in gay marriage becoming legal in the seven other states: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island.
In the longer term, the administration urges the justices to subject laws that discriminate on sexual orientation to more rigorous review than usual, as is the case for claims that laws discriminate on the basis of race, sex and other factors.
The Supreme Court has never given gay Americans the special protection it has afforded women and minorities. If it endorses such an approach in the gay marriage cases, same-sex marriage bans around the country could be imperiled.
Friend-of-the-court briefs are not legally binding. But the government's opinion in particular could carry some weight with the justices when they hear oral arguments in the case on March 26.
Despite the potentially wide-ranging implications of the administration's brief, it still falls short of what gay rights advocates and the attorneys who will argue against Proposition 8 had hoped for. Those parties had pressed the president to urge the Supreme Court to not only overturn California's ban, but also declare all gay marriage bans unconstitutional.
Still, marriage equality advocates publicly welcomed the president's legal positioning.
"President Obama and the solicitor general have taken another historic step forward consistent with the great civil rights battles of our nation's history," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign and co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which brought the legal challenge to Proposition 8.