IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kate Varnum was at her Iowa home watching her newly adopted infant son when news flashed that Barack Obama had become the first sitting U.S. president to endorse equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
"I said, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe this is happening,'" said Varnum, 38, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that prompted the Iowa Supreme Court to make the state the first in the Midwest to legalize gay marriage in 2009. "We are absolutely thrilled. We still have a long way to go, but this is a huge step for Obama to take."
Americans reacted with joy, scorn and indifference to Obama's words in a television interview on Wednesday: "It is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married."
An African-American bishop in Philadelphia said Obama's position will make him think twice about supporting the president's re-election. A bed-and-breakfast owner marveled at what he described as the country's progress on gay rights in the past generation. A Florida business owner in a same-sex relationship worried more about the economy and wondered whether Obama's stance was a gimmick. A Kentucky businessman said the president was injecting himself into an issue that should be left to churches.
All the while, Americans, who polls show are evenly split on the issue, debated the human and societal implications of the statement — and the political fallout for Obama this election year.
In Cedar Rapids, Varnum said the president's words were so important because she and her spouse know what being married means for same-sex couples. They were recently able to adopt their son without the time and cost of having separate adoption hearings, and after Varnum lost her job last year, she and their son received health insurance coverage through her spouse's Iowa-based employer.
Varnum, an Obama supporter, had believed that he would eventually endorse gay marriage but not before the November election. She said the Iowa ruling that bears her family's name helped pave the way for greater acceptance of gay marriage and set the stage for Obama's change of heart.
"After Iowa was decided, a lot of people realized it's not just a coastal issue, it's not just a California or New Jersey issue," she said. "Families should be valued no matter where they live. The tide has turned."
But in a reminder of the issue's political divisiveness, three Iowa Supreme Court justices were ousted by voters after endorsing the court's unanimous ruling. The Iowa conservative activist who led the push for their removal, Bob Vander Plaats, said Wednesday that like them, Obama's decision would lead to him being rejected by voters who view marriage as between one man and one woman.
Bishop Leonard C. Goins, who presides over Chestnut Hill Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Philadelphia, flatly disagreed with Obama's gay marriage endorsement.
"He's wrong, he's in error, it's a mistake and it will hurt him," Goins said, adding that he's now in a quandary over whether he'll continue to support the president.
In Lexington, Ky., executive recruiter Joe Alexander said the federal government should leave the definition of marriage to churches. A Mormon who describes himself as a constitutional conservative says he believes "marriage is ordained by God between a man and a woman."
"Obama's proclamation, to me, just gives insight into his moral fiber. It's inappropriate for him to be speaking about it as president," Alexander said. "It's morally repugnant that the thought is expressed by the president, who should be a moral person. It's embarrassing."
Obama's words fired up others. Sitting at an outdoor cafe, 26-year-old West Hollywood resident Artie Calhoun said he's pleased Obama was bridging a generational gap for gay rights. While many young people seem comfortable with gay marriage, Calhoun says, people in older generations, including his father, struggle to understand homosexuality.
"If we have a voice in the White House who outwardly supports us, that absolutely helps understanding, 100 percent," he said.
In Richmond, Va., Jeff Wells was delighted at what he called a historic moment. The bed-and-breakfast owner said he thought Obama's prior reluctance to speak out on the issue was politically motivated, and he was "pleasantly surprised that he had the courage to" to back same-sex marriage.
Wells married his partner in Massachusetts in 2009, but their union isn't recognized in Virginia, where voters earlier approved an amendment to the state Constitution that defines marriage solely as the union of one man and one woman.
"When I was 25 years old, I never conceived that ... I would one day be married to a man I loved," Wells, 50, said.
Others reacted with skepticism.
Delsa Bernardo, who co-owns Yiya's Gourmet Cuban Bakery and Café in Miami with her girlfriend, backed Obama in 2008 but has since become disillusioned over economic issues. She said she's happy he's spoken out in support of gay marriage but wants to see what actions he takes to back up his words.
Bernardo said she is frustrated with the Obama administration over the difficulty in getting loans despite the federal bailouts he supported. She's had to pay out of pocket $1,600 this month for an industrial juicer and a glass case to display her popular red velvet cupcakes, as well as $4,000 for roof repairs because she can't get a loan. She hasn't paid herself in two weeks.
"I'm happy and I think it's about time our country does it," she said. "But I don't think it's all 'Whoo-hoo!' I mean, who cares who you're sleeping with?"
AP reporters Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa.; Shaya Mohajer in Los Angeles; Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va.; Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami and Roger Alford in Frankfort, Ky. contributed to this report.