UPDATE: On April 4, 2013, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) announced that he supports same-sex marriage. Read the complete story at:
WASHINGTON, DC — Although a growing chorus of national law- and policymakers of both major political parties have voiced their support for same-sex marriage, Florida’s senior United States Senator, Bill Nelson, remains one of just a handful of prominent Democrats who continue to withhold their support for marriage equality for gay Americans.
Within the last week, three Democratic U.S. Senators—Jon Tester of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania—have announced that, like President Obama, their views on gay marriage have “evolved” to supporting full marriage rights for gay men and women.
But Nelson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 after serving for a dozen years in the U.S. House and a stint as state Insurance Commissioner, remains committed to the traditional definition of marriage.
“My personal preference is that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Nelson, 70, said last week. After serving in the U.S. Army in the late 1960s, the Miami-born Nelson became a lawyer and was elected to the state House of Representatives, and then to Congress. In 1986, he became one of only two sitting Members of Congress to travel into space, undergoing NASA training and serving as a Payload Specialist aboard the space shuttle Columbia during a seven-day mission.
Including Nelson, only eight Democratic U.S. Senators remain opposed to marriage equality: Tom Carper (Delaware), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Tim Johnson (South Dakota), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), and Mark Pryor (Arkansas).
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), a pro-life Roman Catholic Democrat who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger, announced his support for marriage equality.
“We’ve always known that there are some Democratic lawmakers who are social conservatives and who still take issue with the idea of full civil rights for gay Americans,” Michael Emanuel Rajner, Legislative Affairs Director for the Florida Democratic Party GLBT Caucus, told the Agenda.
“We are now seeing many of those who opposed marriage equality for political reasons are finally coming around to speaking the truth,” he added.
So what is Nelson’s “problem?” In spite of his opposition to marriage equality, Nelson is consistently ranked (including by the respected National Journal) as a liberal-to-moderate lawmaker on matters relating to the economy and social issues.
“For a long time, Nelson has stated that marriage is an issue that should be left to the states,” Rajner noted.
That position has been shared by many other prominent Democrats, including President Obama, who last year announced his own personal “evolution” towards supports for full marriage rights for gay Americans.
Rajner says that despite Nelson’s national credentials as a liberal, his support for civil unions leaves LGBT Americans out in the cold.
“Even where civil unions are permitted, married gays are denied over 1,000 federal benefits that DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] prevents them from receiving. And Nelson’s refusal to co-sponsor legislation—like the Uniting American Families Act—which would narrow that gap for gay families casts him in a particularly suspect light,” added Rajner.
He also noted that Nelson refuses to endorse the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), proposed legislation to repeal DOMA and require the federal government to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages. Among those who support RFMA are President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law in 1996, and former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican who was the original House sponsor of DOMA.
“If Nelson supported RFMA, it would truly make it a states’ rights issue. Where’s the disconnect?”