Front-runner Kerry is thrust into gay marriage debate

John Kerry tells voters he opposes gay marriages, but when 85 of his Senate colleagues voted to write that opposition into law, he compared the effort to 1960s Southerners trying to outlaw interracial marriages. And two years ago, Kerry signed a letter with fellow members of Congress urging the Massachusetts legislature to drop a proposed state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union between a man and woman because he feared it was too sweeping.

Now a presidential candidate, Kerry is facing scrutiny on his position as a U.S. senator on a delicate political issue for many candidates this election. His carefully crafted response is that he personally opposes gay marriage, prefers civil unions, and rejects any state or federal legislation that could be used to eliminate equal protections for homosexuals or other forms of recognition like civil unions.

"John Kerry's position has been crystal clear. He opposed a proposed constitutional amendment in Massachusetts in the summer of 2002 because a sweeping proposal would have threatened civil unions, health benefits, or inheritance rights for gay couples that represent equal protection under the law," spokesman David Wade said.

Kerry leaves open the possibility he could support a Massachusetts ban on gay marriage if it recognized civil unions and other protections as an alternative. But in 2002, he joined congressional colleagues in opposing Massachusetts's last effort to outlaw gay marriage, saying it was overly broad. The letter, organized by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), was sent on congressional stationery on July 12, 2002, as the Massachusetts legislature first considered a constitutional amendment that limited marriage to "only the union of one man and one woman." "We believe it would be a grave error for Massachusetts to enshrine in our constitution a provision which would have such a negative effect on so many of our fellow residents," wrote Kerry and 11 other members of the state's congressional delegation.

Frank, an openly gay congressman, and most of his colleagues who signed the 2002 letter sent a new letter last month again opposing the constitutional amendment, but this time neither Kerry nor Edward Kennedy, the other Massachusetts senator, signed. Frank said Wednesday he didn't ask fellow Democrats Kerry or Kennedy to sign this time "because I was in such a hurry." He said Kerry has always been clear to him that he opposes gay marriage but wants gays to have equal protection under the law through civil unions and other legislation.

Kerry has said he believes that marriage--both legally and religiously--should be reserved for opposite-sex couples. "I believe and have fought for the principle that we should protect the fundamental rights of gay and lesbian couples--from inheritance to health benefits. I believe the right answer is civil unions. I oppose gay marriage and disagree with the Massachusetts court's decision," Kerry said last week after the court ruling.

When asked whether he might support a constitutional amendment in Massachusetts, he said it was possible. "It depends entirely on the language on whether it supports civil union and partnership or not. I'm for civil unions, I'm for partnership rights. I think what ought to condition this debate is not the term marriage as much as the rights that people are afforded," Kerry told National Public Radio on Monday.

In 1996, Kerry gave an impassioned 10-minute speech on the Senate floor against an earlier congressional effort to define marriage only as a union between a man and a woman. He was one of just 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. "This is a power grab into states' rights of monumental proportions," Kerry said at the time, accusing Republicans of using legislation to drive a wedge between Americans. "It is ironic that many of the arguments for this power grab are echoes of the discussion of interracial marriage a generation ago. It is hard to believe that this bill is anything other than a thinly veiled attempt to score political debating points by scapegoating gay and lesbian Americans," he added, while noting his own personal objections to gay marriage.

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