Ramesh Ponnuru writes:
[Barack Obama] says he opposes [gay marriage]. But he also thinks that a constitutional amendment in California to block it is “divisive and discriminatory.” I think the only way to square these positions would be for Obama to say that he opposes same-sex marriage as a religious or moral matter, but supports it as public policy. He is, that is, “personally opposed.” But I don’t know whether Obama actually takes that position, or is simply muddled. (The other possibility, of course, is that I am wrong and there is some other way to make these views consistent.)
This actually doesn’t seem all that hard. You could hold any one of a handful of closely related views that look roughly like this: The (federal/state) (legislature/courts) should not impose gay marriage, but given that a state’s supreme court has determined a right gay marriage follows from general guarantees in the state constitution providing for equal protection and a right to marry, it would be “divisive and discriminatory” to write a specific amendment carving out an exemption for gay couples.
As a very loose analogy, you can consider the position I think a fair number of people take on something like flag burning: They don’t like it, and they might be perfectly happy to have statutes banning it. However, given that the Supreme Court has determined that flag burning is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, amending the Constitution to create exceptions in the First Amendment seems like a bad idea to them. Now, this isn’t quite my own position, since I think flag burning, like any number of other forms of offensive expression, ought to be protected. That said, if the Supreme Court had decided, on fairly narrow grounds, that flag burning fell into some recognized category of non-protected speech, I don’t know that I’d consider this an intolerable and crippling blow to our expressive rights, even though I’d disagree with the outcome. I would find it far more disturbing if we set a precedent that when the Court rules to protect speech that enough Americans find outrageous, we’ll have a big partisan push to change the Constitution. The underlying idea here is that, important as the case by case determination of the scope of certain fundamental rights is, what’s even more important is the structural principle that these determinations should not be a popularity contest, and ought to be isolated from cyclical politics to a great extent.
I think that’s probably the reasoning that best accounts for the language Obama used, though I can think of a slightly different route to a similar conclusion. That is, you might think we shouldn’t grant marriage rights to gay couples where they don’t exist, but oppose taking those rights away in places where they’ve already been granted, and especially where gay couples have already begun to marry.