Evan Wolfson: A Presidential Endorsement (Opinion)

This piece by Evan Wolfson was originally published in NorthJersey.com on May 13, 2012. You can read the full piece here.

When President Obama spoke to the nation last week about his support of the freedom to marry, he did what we elect presidents to do – show moral leadership in defense of freedom, fairness and families. 

The president’s stand on the right side of history marked a turning point in the movement to end the exclusion of loving and committed gay couples from marriage, but what was also compelling was how he explained his change of heart. 

The president spoke in personal terms about the conversations he has had with his wife, his daughters, gay and lesbian friends and staffers, and others. He talked about the soul-searching he did as a Christian, as a parent and as an American. 

He described how he and Michelle talked with Sasha and Malia about classmates with gay parents, and how the girls couldn’t imagine that their friends’ parents would be denied something as important as marriage. He reflected, he said, on the values he and Michelle are teaching their kids – including the Golden Rule of treating others as you’d want to be treated – and came to see that all that added up to the need to embrace the freedom to marry as a matter of fairness and good.

Obama’s journey

Obama’s journey and explanation of how he came to support rings true, because it is the very same journey that so many Americans have made as they have learned more about who gay families are and talked about why marriage matters. And his example underscores for all of us the importance of having the conversations that he, and the  

vice president, described as helping change their minds.

The passage, in North Carolina, of an anti-gay constitutional amendment the day before the president’s interview, showed what happens when people are pushed to make a decision before they have the opportunity to hear the stories of real families and do the soul-searching over time to rise to fairness. 

The vote said nothing about the prospects for success in ballot battles in other states – such as this November in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state – where the conversation is further along and people have had more time to make the same journey both the president and vice president described last week, the very same journey that has led a majority of Democrats, a majority of independents, an overwhelming majority of young people and a nationwide majority of Americans, to support the freedom to marry.

Sustained conversation

In New Jersey, a 54 percent majority support the freedom to marry, reflecting the experience people here have had getting to know their gay neighbors and co-workers, and the rich and sustained conversation over many years here in the state (not to mention word that has floated across the Hudson from New York, which ended marriage discrimination in 2011). 

New Jersey has been experimenting with a civil union mechanism, but the state’s own official commission established to evaluate the effectiveness of this separate-and-unequal regime reported in 2008 that civil union doesn’t work to secure tangible protections for families. 

The commission found that there is “overwhelming evidence that civil unions will not be recognized by the general public as the equivalent of marriage in New Jersey with the passage of time.” 

Even Vermont, which first experimented with civil union, pushed past civil union to marriage in 2009, as have New Hampshire and other jurisdictions. 

And, of course, in 2006 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that under this state’s protective constitution, gay and lesbian couples and their families must be treated equally under the law, a test civil union flunks.

Because of this evidence, the constitutional command of equality, and the same reasons that Obama explained had helped him to realize that civil union is no substitute for marriage itself, this past February, the Legislature enacted a freedom to marry bill, which it had failed to pass in 2009. 

In only two years, the number of state senators voting for the freedom to marry jumped from 37 percent to 60 percent of the chamber. 

Governor’s opposition

Sadly, Governor Christie planted his feet in the path of progress and vetoed the historic bill. But advocates for New Jersey’s families, such as Garden State Equality and Freedom to Marry, have until January 2014 to make the case for marriage and gain the handful of votes necessary to override the veto, just as we did in Vermont in 2009. 

And we know from the president that it’s the personal stories and conversations that override political stances such as the governor’s and move forward-looking elected officials to action.

Obama made the case, and now it’s up to families in New Jersey, gay couples and their loved ones, non-gay people committed to fairness and a stronger state for all, and, in fact, all of us who believe in treating others as we would want to be treated, to finish the job here in the Garden State, overriding the veto and bringing the freedom to marry to New Jersey. 

Happily, there is enough marriage to share. Let’s let more loving and committed couples share and celebrate the freedom to marry, right here at home.