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The shifting politics of gay marriage

In just six years, the political landscape around gay marriage has shifted dramatically.
Same sex couple Jayne Rowse , green shirt, and April DeBoer hold hands during the rally outside the federal courthouse, Oct. 12, 2013, in Detroit, Mich.
Same sex couple Jayne Rowse , green shirt, and April DeBoer hold hands during the rally outside the federal courthouse, Oct. 12, 2013, in Detroit, Mich.

WASHINGTON -- When April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse sued the state of Michigan three years ago so that both women could be legal parents of their four children, they were told even by some gay rights groups that the country wasn't ready to legalize same sex marriage.

"The attitudes were still very, 'This is not the right time,'" Rowse said, sitting next to DeBoer in a joint interview Monday, the day before the Supreme Court was set to hear oral arguments in their case, DeBoer v. Snyder. "You know, 'You're not the right case. You're not the right plaintiffs. We're not ready. The country's not ready to move forward in this.'"

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Rowse, who's making her first-ever trip to Washington to sit in the courtroom during the arguments, has four children with DeBoer; they're not legally married but held a commitment ceremony before adopting four kids, now ages 2 through 6. On paper, DeBoer is the sole parent of their two girls, while Rowse is the only legal guardian for the two boys. It's because Michigan law doesn't allow two people of the same sex to adopt.

They sued to change that in 2012, just three years ago. That was before President Barack Obama announced he had evolved his position on gay marriage and now favored allowing same sex couples to wed, instead of just supporting the civil unions he backed during his 2008 campaign. It was also before Vice President Joe Biden, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," got out in front of the president and announced he, too, supported same sex weddings.

"I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one other are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights," Biden said in May of 2012.

And it was before Hillary Clinton seemed to get comfortable with the idea of favoring gay marriage -- or at least publicly changing her position. In June 2012, she did a testy interview with NPR's Terry Gross.

"So you’re saying your opinion on gay marriage changed?" Gross asked.

"You know, somebody is always first, Terry," Clinton said. "Somebody is always out front and thank goodness they are. But that doesn’t mean that those who join later, in being publicly supportive or even privately accepting that there needs to be change, are any less committed."

Her campaign released a statement this month that was finally definitive: "Hillary Clinton supports marriage equality and hopes the Supreme Court will come down on the side of same-sex couples being guaranteed that constitutional right," spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said.

The contortions were left over from her 2008 campaign, when she supported civil unions over gay marriage, and when she had to walk a careful line on policies like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act for fear of alienating socially conservative Democrats and independents who weren't ready to embrace gay marriage. The statement prompted possible Democratic challenger Martin O'Malley to release a video with this veiled shot at Clinton on the issue: "History celebrates profiles in courage, not profiles in convenience," it says.

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Fast forward to 2015, when DeBoer v. Snyder is one of four state cases before the Supreme Court that will be argued on Tuesday. The court will decide whether gay marriage has to be legal in all 50 states and, if not, whether states where it's illegal are required to recognize same sex couples who are legally married elsewhere.

In just six years, the political landscape around gay marriage has shifted dramatically. NBC News polling shows that as many as 1 in 5 Americans has shifted their views of gay marriage since the last election; in 2009, just 41% favored gay weddings, while 59% today say they think same sex weddings should be legal. In 2008, gay marriage was legal in just two states: Vermont and Connecticut. Today, gay couples can get married 36 states and the District of Columbia.

The result? The tables have turned -- and it's Republicans who are having to strike a delicate balance between appeasing a conservative base that's opposed to same sex unions and a general electorate that's more and more open to the idea. Polls show members of their own party are changing their views on the issue, too -- in 2009, 70% opposed gay marriage; now, it's 49%.

That reality is reflected in how GOP presidential hopefuls are answering the question of whether they'd attend a gay wedding.

"If there's someone that I love or is in my life, I don't necessarily have to agree with the decision they've made to continue to love them," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told Fusion when he was asked whether he would attend a same sex wedding for a loved one. "Of course I would." 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told msnbc that he'd already attended a gay wedding reception -- though he made clear that he didn't attend the actual ceremony.

"Marriage is between a man and a woman," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told msnbc, "but for someone I love, we've been at a reception."

"I probably would," former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told radio host Hugh Hewitt, "but I think the real issue here is that's a gotcha question." 

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Even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, known as a tea party firebrand, dodged Hewitt's question on the subject -- and reportedly told a New York City reception at the home of two gay hoteliers that he wouldn't have a problem if one of his daughters were gay.

“I haven’t faced that circumstance. I have not had a loved one go to a, have a gay wedding,” Cruz said when asked whether he'd attend a gay ceremony.

It's left 2012 presidential candidate and likely 2016 contender Rick Santorum in the minority with his vocal stance against it.  "It would be a violation of my faith," he said. "I would love them and support them, but I would not participate in that ceremony."

For couples like DeBoer and Rowse, whose case will be heard Tuesday, Santorum's position is inexplicable -- and say their story helps explain why attitudes toward gay marriage have shifted so fast.

"If he had a family member I couldn't understand it. Because if you truly love that person, then you would want share in that joy in their life," Rowse said of Santorum's position. "Our message is just come and spend a day with us. Come, in our house, see what we do with our kids. We're really just the average run-of-the-mill family."