WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry (search), who opposes gay marriage and hints he might support a limited ban, just two years ago signed a letter with other congressional colleagues urging the Massachusetts Legislature to drop a constitutional amendment outlawing homosexual nuptials.
And when Kerry opposed federal legislation in 1996 that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, he compared the law to 1960s efforts in the South to criminalize interracial marriages and accused his supporters of engaging in the "politics of division."
"This is an unconstitutional, unprecedented, unnecessary and mean-spirited bill," Kerry declared then, even as 85 senators and President Clinton supported the measure.
As his home state grapples with a historic Massachusetts Supreme Court (search) ruling that could permit homosexual marriages, Kerry's own comments on the campaign trail are being compared by Republicans, Democratic rivals and even his own constituents to his prior record.
Kerry's campaign said Wednesday he has consistently opposed gay marriage while also rejecting legislation, like the 2002 amendment, that he believed jeopardized the civil rights and recognition of gay relationships because it was too broadly worded.
"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.
"John Kerry favors civil unions, not gay marriage. It's that simple," he said.
The emergence of gay marriage as an issue has placed several candidates — including Howard Dean who signed a civil-unions bill during his Vermont governorship — in a delicate balancing act of trying to avoid looking bigoted while placating heterosexual and religious voters.
The White House refused Wednesday to commit President Bush to supporting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, although conservative leaders said they have received high-level assurances he will take the step.
Spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration was closely watching events in Massachusetts, where lawmakers are on the verge of voting on such an amendment. Bush has denounced the Massachusetts ruling as "deeply troubling."
Kerry has left 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 his congressional colleagues in opposing Massachusetts' last effort to outlaw gay marriage, saying they feared it could be used to prevent communities "from acting as they might wish to provide some form of recognition for same sex relationships."
The letter, organized by Rep. Barney Frank (search), 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," Kerry and 11 other members of the state's congressional delegation wrote.
The Legislature's 2002 effort failed, but that debate renewed in the last week after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled gays were entitled to the same marriage as heterosexuals unless the state constitution is changed. Lawmakers debated a possible amendment again Wednesday.
Frank and most of the other congressmen who signed the 2002 letter sent a new letter last month again opposing the constitutional amendment, but this time neither Kerry nor Sen. Edward Kennedy (search) signed.
Frank said Wednesday he didn't ask Kerry or Kennedy to sign this time "because I was in such a hurry," the openly gay congressman said.
Frank said Kerry has always been clear to him that he opposes gay marriage but wants homosexuals to have equal protection under the law through civil unions, and other legislation.
Kerry has said that he believes marriage — both legally and religiously — should be reserved between a man and woman.
"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.
When asked whether he might support Massachusetts' constitutional amendment, 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 union, 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.
Back in 1996, Kerry gave an impassioned 10-minute speech on the Senate floor against an earlier effort in Congress 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 (search).
"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.