Originally appeared at Slate.com on May 11, 2012.


When President Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage, he talked broadly about “equality” and “fairness.” He spoke of “opposing discrimination against gays and lesbians” and making sure that nobody is treated as “less than full citizens when it comes to their legal rights.” It was a powerful moment—historic and emotional. In the Aaron Sorkin version, the orchestra would have soared at this point as the supporting cast members exchanged teary-eyed yet knowing nods.

But then President Obama described how these rights should be protected and the music stopped with a squawk. Same-sex marriage, he said, is not in fact a federal issue but should be left to the states.

The “marriage is a purely state issue” rhetoric has been around for some time. It’s become a familiar default argument, maybe because it sounds fair and feels safe. But having “evolved” this far on gay marriage, the time has come to evolve our own thinking on what is really at stake when we talk about marriage equality. We must embrace that this is a constitutional and not a democratic issue. Equality is not a popularity contest. This is hardly a radical argument. It’s Supreme Court doctrine: Our rights to be treated as equal and full citizens do not evaporate when we cross state lines. Rather there are certain essential liberties, even in the realm of marriage, we all enjoy regardless of our ZIP code.