DAKAR, Senegal - President Barack Obama on Thursday praised the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage as a "victory for American democracy" and said recognition for same-sex unions should cross state lines.
Obama's remarks came in his first stop on a planned weeklong African tour, in a country that outlaws homosexuality. He said while he respects differing religious views on the matter, he wants to send a message to Africans as well about the importance of nondiscrimination under the law.
"People should be treated equally and that's a principal that I think applies universally," he said.
Obama spoke at a news conference after a private meeting with Senegalese President Macky Sall in which
Obama said gay rights did not come up. Sall responded that Senegal leads "a very tolerant country" and anti-gay laws are not being prosecuted, "but we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality."
"We are still not ready," Sall said, adding that "does not mean we are homophobic."
Obama said he's directing his administration to comb through every federal statute to quickly determine the implications of Wednesday's ruling, which gave the nation's legally married gay couples equal federal footing with all other married Americans.
He said he wants to make sure that gay couples who deserve benefits under the law get them quickly. Obama said he personally believes that gay couples legally married in one state should retain their benefits if they move to another state that doesn't recognize gay marriage.
"I believe at the root of who we are as a people as Americans is the basic represent that we are all equal under the law," he said. "We believe in basic fairness. and what I think yesterday's ruling signifies is one more step towards ensuring that those basic principles apply to everybody."
Obama also offered prayers for former South African President Nelson Mandela, who is gravely ill, ahead of Obama's planned visit to his country this weekend. Obama credited Mandela's example in the anti-apartheid movement of being willing to sacrifice his life for a belief in equal treatment with inspiring Obama's own political activism.
"If and when he passes from this place, his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages," Obama said.
Later Obama plans to reflect on the ties many African-Americans share with the continent as he takes a tour of Goree Island, Africa's westernmost point. Africans reportedly were shipped off into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean through the island's "Door of No Return."
Thousands of boisterous revelers welcomed Obama's motorcade Thursday morning in Dakar, cheering and waving homemade signs as the first African-American president made his way to the presidential palace. A large sign outside his hotel gate had pictures of smiling Obama and Sall that read, "Welcome home, President Obama."
Some in the crowd drummed, danced and sang, and many wore white as a symbol for peace. Sall and his wife, Marieme Faye Sall, greeted Obama and first lady Michelle Obama before entering the palace for a bilateral meeting between the two presidents.
Obama's focus in Senegal is on the modern-day achievements of the former French colony after half a century of independence. Sall ousted an incumbent president who attempted to change the constitution to make it easier for him to be re-elected and pave the way for his son to succeed him. The power grab sparked protests, fueled by hip-hop music and social media, that led to Sall's election.
"Senegal is one of the most stable democracies in Africa," Obama said. "It's moving in the right direction."
But such people-powered democratic transitions are not always the story of the African experience. Fighting and human rights abuses limited Obama's options for stops in his first major tour of sub-Saharan Africa since he took office more than four years ago. Obama is avoiding his father's homeland, Kenya, whose president has been charged with war crimes, and Nigeria, the country with the continent's most dominant economy. Nigeria is enveloped in an Islamist insurgency and military crackdown.
Obama's itinerary in Senegal was designed to send a message, purposefully delivered in a French-speaking, Muslim-majority nation, to other Africans in countries that have not made the strides toward democracy that Senegal has. Obama plans to meet with civil society leaders at the Goree Institute and visit the Supreme Court to speak about the importance of an independent judiciary and the rule of law in Africa's development.
Meanwhile, the First Lady's focus was on the women of Senegal. Michelle Obama tweeted a photo from her stop in Senegal with the caption "My first instagram! So inspired and so impressed by these extraordinary young women. -mo"