Obama hopes Supreme Court grants same-sex couples right to marry

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When George Stephanopoulos asked President Obama if he could imagine a compelling reason for a state to outlaw gay marriage, the answer was pretty clear.

“So -- well, I can't, personally. I cannot,” President Obama said Tuesday at the White House. That’s an apparent shift on an issue that has tectonic movement in the U.S. over the past year and is set to be before the U.S. Supreme Court later this month.

The President praised what he called “a healthy debate taking place state by state” and added that “not every state has the exact same attitudes and cultural mores.”

“And I-- you know, my thinking was that this is traditionally a state issue and-- that it will work itself out,” he said.

But, then he added this:

“On the other hand-- what I also believe is that the core principle that people don't get discriminated against-- that's one of our core values. And it's in our constitution. It's in-- the-- you know, 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. And-- from a legal perspective, the-- the-- the bottom line is, is that gays have historically been discriminated against and I do think that courts have to apply what's called heightened scrutiny, where they take a careful look. If there's any reason for-- gays and lesbians to be treated differently, boy, the government better—“

“So banning gay marriage is discrimination?” asked Stephanopoulos.

That led to the President saying he can’t imagine a good justification for banning gay marriage.

“Ultimately, I think that-- you know, same-sex couples should be able to marry. That's my personal position. And, frankly, that's the position that's reflected-- in the briefs that we filed-- in the Supreme Court,” said the president, referring to the argument his Justice Department made in a brief before the court on a challenge to California’s Prop 8. The court will also hear a challenge to the Bill Clinton era Defense of Marriage Act, which denied survivor benefits to same sex couples before any states recognized their unions.

“My hope is that-- the Court looks at the evidence and-- and in the California case, for example, the only reason presented for treating gays and lesbians differently was, ‘Well, they're gay and lesbian.’ There wasn't-- a real rationale beyond that. In fact-- you know, all the other-- rights and-- and-- responsibilities of-- a civil union were identical to marriage… It's just you couldn't call it marriage. Well, at that point, what you're really sayin' is—‘We're just gonna treat these folks differently because of who they are.’ And-- and I do not think-- that's-- that's who are as Americans. And-- and frankly, I think-- American attitudes have evolved, just like mine have-- pretty substantially and fairly quickly, and I think that's a good thing.

Obama has only publicly supported same sex marriage for a little over a year and when President Obama came out in support of same sex marriage to ABC’s Robin Roberts, the president was clear he thought the matter should be up to the states.

“I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn't want to nationalize the issue,” he told Roberts back in May of 2012. “There's a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized… What I'm saying is is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place-- at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing. And-- you know, one of the things that I'd like to see is-- that a conversation continue in a respectful way.”

Read More: President Obama’s May 2012 Interview With Robin Roberts

But in the intervening 10 months the president won reelection, public opinion has further shifted in favor of same sex marriage and two states okayed marriages. Nine states and the District of Columbia currently allow same sex marriage. More than twice that number have banned same sex marriage and civil unions in their state constitutions.

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Transcript: President Obama Interviewed by George Stephanopoulos

ABC's Jordyn Phelps, Eric Wray, Z. Byron Wolf, and Alexandra Dukakis contributed to this episode.