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Obama's gay rights gap

The president has done precious little to advance gay rights, despite campaign promises.

June 17, 2009

Because the Justice Department traditionally defends federal laws from court challenges, it should surprise no one that the Obama administration filed a brief arguing in favor of the odious Defense of Marriage Act:HR3396:. Gay and lesbian activists were stunned and outraged anyway, though the cause is more complex than a single legal paper. They have reason to be disappointed in President Obama; only after a groundswell of anger has he taken steps to make good on his campaign pledges to advance gay rights.

Even during the campaign, Obama sent ambivalent signals on the issue. He favored equal rights for gays, but not same-sex marriage. Yet he didn't support Proposition 8, which banned such marriages. Obama the candidate walked a fine line between appeasing the gay community and reassuring heartland Americans who find same-sex marriage a shocking idea.

Nevertheless, Obama pledged to work toward the repeal of the federal marriage act, which denies gay couples such basics as filing a joint tax return. He has made encouraging noises about signing the so-called Matthew Shepard Act, which extends hate-crime laws to cover acts against gays. And he's expected to announce today the extension of benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. But although he appears willing to sign gay rights bills, he takes a curiously passive approach to ensuring that such legislation actually gets to his desk.

On Sunday, the administration's top-ranking openly gay official offered a less-than-stellar prognosis for gay rights. Obama remains committed to banning employment discrimination against gays, along with repealing the marriage act and "don't ask, don't tell," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, and that will happen "before the sun sets on this administration." The implication was that much of this agenda might wait until a second term.

The gap between Obama and gay rights activists appears to be growing. True, the current federal lawsuits against the marriage act and Proposition 8 fail to recognize that a hasty march can be damaging to gay rights. The current composition of the U.S. Supreme Court makes it highly unlikely that such lawsuits will succeed, and adverse decisions could set the same-sex marriage movement back by years. From an ideological viewpoint, gays and lesbians are entitled to their rights now. But well-planned timing gives them the best chance of securing those rights soon. Obama, though, has shown a dishearteningly pragmatic willingness to allow the issue of gay rights to languish. The many Americans who support these rights expect better of him.

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