Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., (more news | Web) said Wednesday that controversial comments he made regarding a pending Supreme Court case were no different than those stated by the court in a prior ruling.
"To suggest that my comments, which are the law of the land and were the reason the Supreme Court decided the case in 1986, are somehow intolerant," Santorum told a town-hall meeting in Pennsylvania. "I would just argue that it is not."
Santorum, the No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate, was referring to an majority opinion written in 1986 by Justice Byron White which upheld a state law outlawing sodomy and asserted that consenting adults had no constitutional right to private homosexual acts.
The controversy erupted Monday after the Associated Press released the text of an interview in which the two-term senator compared homosexuality to adultery, polygamy and incest.
On Tuesday, Santorum told Fox News in an another interview that he had no intention of stepping down from his Senate Republican Conference chairmanship. He said the remarks were taken out of context.
"I do not need to give an apology based on what I said and what I am saying now. I think this is a legitimate policy discussion," the senator explained. "These are not ridiculous comments. These are very much very important points and ones that most members of Congress are concerned about."
In the AP interview, Santorum stated his opinion on the case before the Supreme Court, which concerns two gay men in Texas who argue their constitutional rights to privacy were denied when they were arrested for violating the state's sodomy laws.
"If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery," Santorum was quoted. "You have the right to anything."
Santorum told Fox News he was not equating gay men with polygamists and adulterers.
"I was not equating one to the other. There is no moral equivalency there," he explained.
"What I was saying was that if you say there is an absolute right to privacy for consenting adults within the home to do whatever they want," Santorum continued, "[then] this has far-reaching ramifications, which has a very serious impact on the American family, and that is what I was talking about."
Gay activists were quick to express outrage after the AP interview was released Monday.
"We find what Sen. Santorum said as egregious as what Sen. [Trent] Lott said last December, and we believe he should pay a price for those comments," said David Smith, communications director at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian political activist group.
Smith was referring to remarks last December by the Lott, R-Miss., that were viewed as racist and which ultimately led to his resignation as Senate Majority Leader.
"Senator Santorum has a leadership role in coalition-building as the Senate GOP conference chairman. You don't build coalitions by divisive and mean-spirited statements," said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Club, a well-known gay and lesbian Republican organization.
"Without a more forceful apology from the senator, it is hard to imagine that he can effectively promote the 'compassionate conservative' message of President George W. Bush," said Log Cabin Executive Director Patrick Guerriero.
Democrats also joined the chorus of criticism. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called Santorum's comments "unfortunate" and "out of step with our country's respect for tolerance."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is running for president, said, "The White House speaks the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism, but they're silent while their chief lieutenants make divisive and hurtful comments that have no place in our politics ... These comments take us backwards in America."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called on Santorum to resign his leadership post, calling the remarks "divisive, hurtful and reckless."
Santorum did get some expressions of support Wednesday. Senior Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, also a Republican, said he accepted Santorum's explanation that his comments should not be "misconstrued in any way as a statement on individual lifestyles."
"I have known Rick Santorum for the better part of two decades and I can say with certainty he is not a bigot," Specter said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee added that Santorum was "a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party and in the Senate, and to suggest otherwise is just politics."
Santorum, who was supposed to be spending Tuesday celebrating the birthday of his wife — who is pregnant with their eighth child — agreed to speak on the issue after it became apparent the controversy wasn't going to go away.
"I am very disappointed that the article was written in the way it was and it has been construed the way it has," he said. "I don't believe it was put in the context of which the discussion was made, which was rather a far-reaching discussion on the right to privacy."
Some Republican sources were quietly raising questions about the reporter who first quoted Santorum and who continued to report on the conflict it created. Lara Jakes Jordan is married to Jim Jordan, a former DSCC official who now manages Kerry's presidential campaign.
Fox News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.