North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan said Wednesday that she supports the right of gay people to marry, saying “we should not tell people who they can love or who they can marry.”
Hagan, one of the few Democratic senators who had not voiced support of gay marriage, made her announcement as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on a federal law that denies federal benefits to married same-sex couples.
“I know there are strong feelings on both sides, and I have a great deal of respect for their opinions,” Hagan said in an interview. “But after much thought and prayer on my part, this is where I am today.
“I know all our families do not look alike,” she added. “We all want the same thing for our families. We want happiness; we want health, prosperity, a bright future for our children and grandchildren. After conversations I’ve had with family members, with people I go to church with and with North Carolinians from all walks of life, I’ve come to my own personal conclusion that we should not tell people who they can love, or who they can marry. It’s time to move forward with this issue.”
In the past few days, her fellow Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have all issued statements supporting marriage equality.
Hagan’s announcement comes as she’s being targeted on hot button issues ahead of her 2014 re-election campaign. The Greensboro Democrat’s seat is seen as one of the most vulnerable, and she has been the focus of ads by the oil industry, the National Rifle Association and by a gun-control group headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Her support of same-sex marriage puts her at odds with many in this culturally conservative state. North Carolina voters last year overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment declaring marriage as being between a man and a woman.
“I’m not interested in playing political pundit,” Hagan said when asked how she thought her stance would affect her re-election prospects. “I’ve never made a decision based on future elections. I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in casting aspersions on those who view this differently.”
Hagan opposed last year’s amendment as did many Democrats for whom she must rely on for support.
Hagan said she came to her decision over time, comparing her decision to Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who said earlier this month that he had changed his position after learning this son was gay.
Hagan also said no church should ever have to conduct a ceremony “that is inconsistent with their religious belief.”
Hagan’s announcement drew a mixed response.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of NC Values Coalition, said Hagan’s views placed her “at odds with the needs of children and with an overwhelming majority of voters in North Carolina.”
“Senator Hagan is entitled to her own views, but marriage is defined by God, and neither the government (U.S. Senators included) nor the church has the right to redefine it,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Senator Hagan’s view places more importance on the desires of adults than on the needs of children. Children deserve at least the opportunity to have both a mother and a father.”
Her announcement was praised by gay-rights supporters.
State Rep. Marcus Brandon of Greensboro, the only openly gay state lawmaker, said “her support for full marriage equality shows her commitment to respecting the dignity and the rights for all citizens, and puts her on the right side of history.”
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said Hagan’s announcement comes at a time when the public perception of same-sex marriages is shifting and may have even reached a tipping point.
But it is still not clear how the national trend might translate in North Carolina, Taylor said.
“This is a purple state,” Taylor said. “It was going to be a tough race (for Hagan) anyway. Given what happened with Amendment One, which was less than 12 months ago, one would think that makes her re-election that much tougher.”
In May, 61 percent of the voters approved the amendment banning same-sex marriages in North Carolina, with the majority of the support for it coming from rural areas.
A state-wide survey conducted in February found that 38 percent of registered North Carolina voters supported same-sex marriages, while 54 percent opposed them, according to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic leaning firm in Raleigh. That is a 4 percent increase in support since last May.