Most of the Democrats running for the White House said Tuesday that gay couples should have the same legal rights as husbands and wives, but the leading candidates stopped short of supporting the right of gay men and lesbians to marry. The only three candidates who say federal law should protect the right to same-sex marriages are Al Sharpton, former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Most of the others at a presidential forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign back the less controversial right to gay civil unions. The audience hissed when senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts said marriage is a right reserved in America for men and women. "Marriage has a special status in our culture, our society, our history," Lieberman said.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, one of the presidential contenders to address the forum, said civil unions give gays legal rights, such as health benefits, inheritance, child custody, and hospital visitation, in the absence of marriage. Under tough questioning from moderator Sam Donaldson, Dean said the distinction of the word marriage is the hang-up in the states "because marriage has a long, long history as a religious institution." But Sharpton said simply granting civil unions is a form of discrimination against gays, "like saying we'll give blacks or whites or Latinos the rights to shack up but not marry."
Despite the differences over gay marriage, the Democratic presidential candidates agree with most of the policy positions of the Human Rights Campaign, including support for antidiscrimination laws, hate-crime legislation, increased funding for AIDS research and treatment, and federal domestic-partnership benefits. But the issue of gay marriage is sure to dog the candidates--both the Democrats and President Bush--in next year's election. Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the HRC, said the group also would invite Bush and other Republicans to future forums, which elicited laughter that suggested the crowd didn't believe the president would appear before the group. Several congressional Republicans, led by Senate majority leader Bill Frist, have called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. Bush has said "marriage is between a man and a woman," but he has sidestepped the constitutional amendment issue.
Same-sex marriages are legal in Belgium and the Netherlands, and Canada's Liberal government announced last month that it would enact similar legislation soon. Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri were asked if they would recognize those marriages if the couples immigrated to the United States. Although Dean did not answer the question directly during an interview in June on NBC's Meet the Press, he said he had come to the conclusion that they should be recognized. So did Gephardt. "I think the federal government should conform its laws as quickly as we can to recognize whatever relationship--civil relationship, civil union, gay marriage--whatever is accepted and put into law in states or foreign countries," he said. Gephardt told the audience about how he and his wife have embraced their daughter, Chrissy, when she announced a year and a half ago that she was leaving her husband because she is a lesbian. He drew applause from the audience when he said he and his wife had joined Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Appearing with Gephardt at a news conference following the forum, Chrissy Gephardt gave her father credit for favoring other rights for gay couples even though she disagrees with his position on marriage. "I've talked to him about it all the time," she said. "I'm definitely a proponent of gay marriages."
Two of the nine presidential candidates did not appear at the forum, senators Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina.