NEAL CONAN, HOST:
The president and gay marriage on The Opinion Page this week. Yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," David Gregory asked Vice President Joe Biden whether he was comfortable with same-sex marriage now.
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VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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, all 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.
CONAN: Then today on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was asked whether he thinks gay couples should be able to marry. He replied: Yes, I do. When he's asked, President Obama says his position is evolving. In a blog post for the washingtonpost.com, columnist Jonathan Capehart argues it's about time for President Obama's words to match his deeds. Advocates point to steadily growing acceptance in public opinion polls. Opponents point out that gay marriage has lost every time it's been on the ballot, which polls suggest will happen again tomorrow in North Carolina.
So how is this debate changing where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jonathan Capehart joins us from the studios at The Washington Post. His blog post "Obama Should Follow Biden's Lead on Same-Sex Marriage" appeared on the newspaper's website yesterday. Nice to have you with us again.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: And you say that there's little to hold the president back at this point. His actions all seem to point in one direction.
CAPEHART: Yeah. All of his actions for someone who's evolving, he's pretty much evolved. This is a president who last year decided that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage at the federal level, was unconstitutional and would no longer be defended by the United States government against court challenge. This is a president who has spoken out against amendment efforts such as the one tomorrow in North Carolina, but also in New Hampshire and Maine and Washington State.
And also this is a president who has publicly come out in favor of a bill to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act that's being sponsored by California Senator Dianne Feinstein that would completely repeal DOMA. So for someone who's evolving, he's pretty much evolved. The only difference is his words saying I support same-sex marriage, he won't say them. But the actions that he has taken pretty much say that he does.
CONAN: Well, yet there are some political reasons why he might not want to. If you look at the poll results in North Carolina, there are a couple of big groups for whom the president will be relying on votes come November who oppose gay marriage. They would include Hispanics, and they would include African-Americans.
CAPEHART: Absolutely. And I understand that. And that's the luxury of being an opinion writer. I can say what I think he should do, but I also am mindful of a lot of the calculations that are involved that would, you know, force him and his re-election team to say, you know what, hold back a little bit, particularly in North Carolina, where the last poll I saw had support for Amendment 1 - that would be the amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the Constitution of North Carolina - has 55 percent support.
North Carolina is a swing state, a state that the president won in 2008, and he was the first Democrat to win that state in a very long time. It's also the state where the president's nominating convention, or re-nominating convention, will be held later this summer. So there - as you mentioned, there are a lot of constituencies that aren't comfortable or as comfortable as Secretary Duncan, Secretary Shaun Donovan at Housing and Urban Development, or even the vice president with same-sex marriage. So while I am pushing the president to take a stand, to have his words match his deeds, I certainly understand the reticence.
CONAN: And you say would ban gay marriage. That would be its effect. It in fact would define marriage as between one man and one woman.
CONAN: It doesn't explicitly ban gay marriage in that sense.
CAPEHART: Right. Well, no, but...
CONAN: But it's - the last poll I saw showed that it was losing among Democrats.
CAPEHART: Yes. Well, tomorrow, we will see - you're talking about North Carolina?
CONAN: Yes, indeed.
CAPEHART: Yeah. Tomorrow, we will see just exactly how this all shakes out and how it breaks down. One thing that I want to point out: North Carolina already, as a matter of state law, bans same-sex marriage. What Amendment One would do is attach an amendment to the state's constitution. So this would basically be piling on. The other thing that this amendment does...
CONAN: It would make it very, very difficult to undo.
CAPEHART: Correct. But the other thing that this amendment does is that it would make civil unions and domestic partnerships also illegal. So it goes a lot farther than just a simple constitutional amendment.
CONAN: And this is - and the language varies from state to state, but...
CONAN: ...well over half the states have such amendments in their constitutions now.
CAPEHART: Correct. Correct. And no amendment that has gone up for public vote has been defeated. So it was already a steep hill to climb for those who are against Amendment One. And judging by the public opinion polls, North Carolina is not about to break a trend.
CONAN: Let's see if we'd get some callers in on the conversation. We want to talk with you about how the debate on gay marriage is evolving, if you will, where you live. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Kim, and Kim's with us from Charlotte.
CONAN: Hi, Kim.
KIM: I just moved to North Carolina from California, and we just fought it there in California.
CONAN: Proposition 8, yes.
KIM: Prop 8. And Amendment One here in North Carolina, it's ridiculous. It's not about anything except love and commitment to another person. And the fact that if I have someone in my family who is in a committed relationship, and they happen to be gay or lesbian, they are unable to get married or have a civil union. That, to me, is sad because it's about the respect and the mutuality of the bond between people. It's very frustrating. After having lived through it in California, and now we're going through it again now in North Carolina, it's just dumbfounding to me.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart, if the president chooses - should this be a political issue? It's also coming up - and, Kim, thanks very much for the call. Should this be a political issue to be resolved by the ballot in referenda, by state legislatures, or should it be an issue to be decided by the courts?
CAPEHART: Well, look, I think if the courts step in and say to a state that you must honor and respect gay and lesbian relationships because the state legislature won't do it, I am perfectly fine with that. If a state legislature, the duly elected representatives of a particular state pass a bill and it's sent to the governor's desk, and the governor signs it or doesn't sign it, that is the proper way to go.
But as we saw in New Jersey, where the state legislature signed it, passed the law in both chambers, sent it to Governor Christie and he vetoed it, saying that he thought that this - that the effort should be or the question should be given to the voters through a referendum, quite frankly I think that that is the wrong way to go. The rights of a minority should not be put up for public referendum.
If that had been the case in the 1950s, in the 1960s, if people in America in general, in the South in particular, were asked to judge whether African-Americans should have the right to vote or the right to equal public accommodation, I don't think that vote would have gone the way we think it would today.
CONAN: Let's go next to Michael. Michael is with us from Fayette in Alabama.
MICHAEL: Good afternoon. If I give my opinion on President Obama's - oh, how I wish the caller screener last week had allowed me when that wonderful, you know, sociologist and economist about living on...
CONAN: Michael. Michael. Michael, let's focus on today's issue today.
MICHAEL: I just wish he had mentioned people with mental illness and mental retardation and...
MICHAEL: Anyway. OK. Personally, I am against homosexual marriage not just because of the first chapter of Book of Romans in the New Testament, but also because they tend to - these marriages tend not to last long enough. I've read that they tend to have easy, quick divorces, which can be devastating for children which are involved.
However, having said that, we must make homosexual marriage legal, complete with all of the benefits. Punitive laws will not lead them to Christ. We got - if we say we love them, we have to prove it by our actions. And, unfortunately, you're going to hear a vastly different opinion in Christian - let's put it, be honest, Protestant broadcasting. However, is it wise for...
CONAN: Not just Protestants, Michael. There's a few Catholics who are opposed to it as well, but thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Here's an email we have from Mike in Cookeville, Tennessee: We just had a first and very successful Pride in the Park celebration in my middle Tennessee town this past weekend. It was successful and peaceful beyond anyone's expectations and attended by about 600 people. Attitudes and times are changing. As the father of a lesbian, America needs to allow LBGT individuals the pursuit of their own happiness.
And, Jonathan Capehart, that - in terms of changing people's opinion, as people began to understand, as more and more people came out, that this was their family, their friends, their co-workers, attitudes began to change in various places.
CAPEHART: Right. Attitudes began to change. People started talking more openly. You can go back as far as the AIDS crisis in the '80s and the '90s when people started coming out and talking about who they are. You add, on top of that, what was happening culturally in terms of plays, movies, and in particular, television. Vice President Biden gave a lot of credit to "Will & Grace," the NBC show that ran from 1998 to 2006 featuring an openly gay male lawyer and his best friend, straight female roommate and then their, you know, hyperly(ph) flamboyant friend Jack, who, through those years of television, were able to, through comedy, teach people about the issues facing and concerning gays and lesbians in America.
And, you know, you can't discount the power of comedy, the power of television and the power of seeing people and learning about people through that lens, which then allows people to have their eyes open more fully and allows friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers, colleagues be able to talk about these issues more openly. And you know, the first questioner, Kim, who said she moved from California to North Carolina, that is also playing a part in sort of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians because you have people who are moving from so-called progressive states like New York, California, Northeastern states and moving to places like North Carolina where there are jobs and opportunities, places that...
CONAN: Just to remind that California did approve Proposition 8.
CAPEHART: Well, true. Well, true. But remember, Kim, you know, was fighting Proposition 8 in California, and she gets to North Carolina where Amendment One is there. There are a lot of people like Kim in North Carolina who find Amendment One offensive and appalling and even though this amendment probably, if you believe the polls, will pass tomorrow, it says something that there are a lot of people in North Carolina who are vigorously fighting this effort. This is not something that's just going to pass easily.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart, a columnist for The Washington Post. His blog post "Obama Should Follow Biden's Lead On Same-Sex Marriage" can be - there's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Stay(ph), and Stay's with us from Denver.
STACY (CALLER): Hi. Thanks for having me on. My name is Stacy, and I'm calling from Denver where...
CONAN: Oh, Stacey. Somebody - I apologize. I left out the C in your name.
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(CALLER): No, it's quite all right. We're out here in Denver. And we're actually witnessing a change happening at a legislative level. Last year, a civil unions bill - actually, the last couple of years, a civil unions bill has been up in front of both the House and the Senate and has died. We're actually now two days away from the end of this legislative session. And we are currently seeing a civil unions bill have life, a bill - civil unions bill passed out at the Senate last week, and this week, it's being heard by the House.
It didn't pass out at the first committee. It passed out at the second committee on Friday. And then actually, it's just one step away. There are a number of Republicans who are - will support it if it can get to the full House floor.
CONAN: And there's, I understand, a question of time. The clock may run out. The legislature may adjourn before a vote can be taken.
(CALLER): Yeah, that's correct. That is correct. I know that the speaker of the House right now is getting a lot of pressure, I think, from both sides to, you know, either have it die or to take it to the full House. The session will end. It does need to be heard tomorrow for it to be able to move forward and be signed by the governor who, every signal shows, is willing to sign the bill.
CONAN: Stacy, thanks very much for the update. Appreciate it. Let's go next to - this is Gabriel. Gabriel with us from Norman in Oklahoma.
GABRIEL (CALLER): Yes.
CONAN: How's the conversation changing there?
(CALLER): It's not. There's a basic sanction for civil unions, but the opinion toward gay marriage is very largely negative. I live in a college town so I don't see much of it, but I hear a lot about it.
CONAN: The negativity, you mean?
CONAN: And why is that do you think?
(CALLER): I think it's also because of fundamentalist Christian values that tend toward - they just tend from the Bible like with the previous caller.
CONAN: All right. Gabriel, thanks very much for the update.
(CALLER): All right.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart, the conversation is also happening in any number of churches around the country.
CAPEHART: Yes, it is. You've got in churches all over the country, all denominations. People are talking about this issue, grappling with his issue. There's no - I would argue that you can't paint with a broad brush that all Catholics or all Protestants or all churches are against marriage equality. I think that once people have an opportunity to start talking about these issues is when we get to see - folks get to hear where their churches stand. And then when you hear it from the pulpit, that's when people have to decide whether they are - whether they like what they're hearing from their - from the men and women of the cloth who are talking to them from the pulpit, or whether they don't.
And I think the way the demographics are shifting on this issue, gay rights in general and marriage equality in particular, the shift is moving in the right direction. It's just a matter if time when the culture and the politics all meet up.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.
CAPEHART: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart, a columnist for The Washington Post. Tomorrow, difficult decisions we face when caring for children and parents at the same time. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.