WASHINGTON (BP) -- President Obama called in his second inaugural address for an agenda that includes the strengthening of civil rights for homosexuals that some interpreted as an endorsement of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.
Speaking Monday (Jan. 21), Obama told the hundreds of thousands gathered outside the U.S. Capitol, "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
The president's remarks -- reportedly the first in an inaugural address to mention homosexual rights -- came shortly after he equated rights for homosexuals with the women's voting rights and African-American civil rights movements.
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall," Obama said near the close of his 19-minute speech.
Advocates for the right of women to vote held a convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., while Selma, Ala., was the starting site of important marches in 1965 to the state capital of Montgomery in support of voting rights for blacks. The 1969 riots after police raided New York City's Stonewall Inn, which welcomed openly homosexual customers, helped launch the gay rights movement.
An advocate for same-sex marriage said Obama's comments seemed to indicate he was prepared to support such unions as a constitutional right.
"I was very gratified to hear the president state in clear and unambiguous language that our gay and lesbian citizens must be treated equally under the law and that their loving relationships must be treated equally as well. That can only mean one thing: equality under the Constitution," Ted Olson said, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Olson was solicitor general under President George W. Bush and is now a lawyer for homosexual couples challenging a California amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The White House denied Tuesday (Jan. 22) the president's position had changed. "The president believes that it's an issue that should be addressed by the states," Press Secretary Jay Carney said in response to a reporter's question at a White House briefing, The Washington Examiner reported.
Obama announced his support for gay marriage in May, becoming the first sitting president to do so. He said then the issue should be left to the states, but his inaugural speech seemed to leave open the possibility he had changed even further on the issue.
He soon will have an opportunity to make clear if his administration backs same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two marriage cases that could either reaffirm the historical understanding of marriage or result in the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states.
On March 26, the justices will participate in arguments on the constitutionality of the California amendment, known as Proposition 8. The next day, they will weigh the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman in federal law.
The Justice Department must file a brief by late February if it intends to stake out a position with the high court.
A Southern Baptist college professor and cultural commentator said the president's inaugural comments "deserve some scrutiny because their implications are morally devastating for the definition of marriage."
Denny Burk -- associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. -- wrote in a blog post that Obama "actually presents in miniature a moral case for gay marriage based on the Declaration of Independence."
"The president only means for this statement to apply to gay marriage, but his words have implications beyond the unions of gay people," he wrote. "If equality relies on legal recognition of any union between people who love one another, why must that only apply to homosexual couples?
"I know that President Obama doesn't support polygamy, incest, or statutory rape," Burk said. "But that is only because he's inconsistent. The moral basis that he cites for same-sex marriage necessarily applies to those other arrangements as well."
The president of the National Organization for Marriage took exception to Obama's advocacy for same-sex marriage during his inaugural speech.
"Gay and lesbian people are already treated equally under the law," Brian Brown said in a written statement. "They have the same civil rights as anyone else; they have the right to live as they wish and love whom they choose. What they don't have is the right to redefine marriage for all of society."
Brown said, "A presidential inauguration should be a time for the nation to come together; instead President Obama chose to voice his support for a radical agenda advanced by some of his biggest campaign contributors to redefine marriage for everyone. Marriage brings our nation together. The concept of gay 'marriage' would have been totally alien to our founding fathers, and the protection and advancement of marriage between one man and one woman will immeasurably serve the common good of this country and further strengthen our Union."
In addition to Obama's comments:
-- Richard Blanco, an openly homosexual poet, read a poem he had written for the occasion;
-- The Lesbian and Gay Band Association, with 215 members, marched in the inaugural parade.
In addition, Luis Leon included a reference to homosexuality in his benedictory prayer, saying, "But with the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor."
Leon, Episcopalian rector at St. John's Church in Washington, replaced Louie Giglio for the benediction after the Atlanta pastor was sharply criticized by gay-rights groups for a sermon in the 1990s in which he described homosexuality as sinful.
In his speech, Obama also addressed global warming, though it has lost much of its momentum and credibility as an issue in recent years.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," the president said. "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms."
He also called for immigration reform.
Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden took ceremonial oaths of office during the inauguration. They had taken the official oaths Jan. 20 as required by the Constitution.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, delivered the invocation for the inauguration. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang "The Battle Hyman of the Republic" during the ceremony. Also singing during the inauguration were Beyonce, James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson.
Earlier in the morning, Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, along with their families, attended a prayer service at St. John's Church, which is near the White House. Atlanta pastor Andy Stanley preached.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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