Center for American Progress

The Federal Marriage Amendment: The Speech the President Should Have Given

My fellow Americans, the institution of marriage faces many threats, from financial insecurity to the stresses of work and everyday life, to a culture that often seems to devalue the importance of responsibility and commitment. That is why I have proposed a “healthy marriage” initiative to help couples develop the skills and knowledge they need to form and sustain healthy marriages.

Some people believe that the institution of marriage is also threatened by the prospect that some of our states and localities will permit gay and lesbian couples to participate in it. They have urged me to endorse a constitutional amendment that would end these experiments in the states and define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

I don’t mind telling you that a lot of pressure has been brought to bear on me to endorse the amendment, and a number of my key advisers have urged me to do so. But after much soul-searching, I have concluded that that would be the wrong thing to do.

I respect the personal convictions of those who support an amendment, and I personally share their discomfort about the prospect of same-sex marriages. I also support the right of religious denominations to define marriage for religious purposes, just as the states define marriage for civil purposes. But that right is not threatened. And as your president, I do not have the luxury of indulging my private feelings. I am the president of all the people, including our gay and lesbian fellow citizens. Laura and I have many friends — including prominent members of my administration — who have children and other family members who are gay or lesbian. They want the best for their children — as do we all. And I cannot find it within myself to say to them that the desire of their children to marry poses a threat to our society that it takes a constitutional amendment to avert.

The Constitution was not intended to settle every controversy in our society or to codify the passions and prejudices of a transient majority. In fact, it was designed to restrain those passions from getting out of hand.

The November election will be closely fought, and it is tempting for me to turn this divisive issue into a political opportunity. But I am the president first, and a candidate second. As president, it is my responsibility to defend the Constitution. And to do what I can to bring our nation together, not to drive us apart; to heal our differences, not to exacerbate them.

I believe profoundly in the institution of marriage. I believe it encourages fidelity and mutual reliance and leads to responsible behavior in a world in which too many people take such matters lightly. And I have to say that while I am personally uncomfortable with the idea of a marriage between two men or two women, it is hard not to be impressed by the determination of so many in the gay and lesbian community to embrace the responsibilities of marriage at the very time that it is so threatened.

I am also concerned about the children of these relationships. Because while some people are fond of saying that same-sex couples cannot procreate, the truth is that there are many thousands — perhaps millions — of children in this country born to or adopted by gay and lesbian couples.

And that is a fact that I cannot ignore. Those children did not choose their parents, any more than other children do. And they are entitled to every advantage we can give them that will enhance the happiness and stability of their lives. They are entitled to know that their president will not take actions that make life more difficult for them by adding to the financial burdens or social stigma that they and their families may already experience.

America is a good and generous country. Our greatness stems from our ability not only to tolerate but to celebrate our diversity. Even more than this, it stems from our shared devotion to democratic values compared to which our differences are of little account. Whatever their background, whatever their orientation, Americans believe profoundly in hard work, fair play, equal opportunity, and the dignity of every human being.

I do not know where our national conversation about same-sex marriage will lead. Different states may well reach different conclusions, and that is as it should be under our federal system. But wherever we end up, I hope that we can have that conversation in a spirit of mutual respect that is consistent with those shared values. As president, I have a responsibility to do all I can to ensure that that conversation does not degenerate into the kind of intolerance that has too often been visited on those in our society who are different. That is why I will not lend the prestige of the presidency to the effort to write into the Constitution language that would single out a group of our fellow citizens for second-class status.

I realize that some of my supporters will be disappointed with my decision. But I have searched my conscience and must do what is best for the country, regardless of the political consequences. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States.

Mark David Agrast is the senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress.

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