Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, said Wednesday he believes homosexuality is a choice — and that prison is proof — in a televised interview before later backtracking from the remarks on social media.
"A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight," Carson said in an interview with CNN Wednesday. "And when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."
Carson's belief is at odds with others in the medical community who say "most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation."
The 63-year-old said he's open to granting legal rights to same-sex couples but not to changing the legal definition of marriage.
"Why do gay people want to get married? Why do they say they want to get married? Because they want to have various rights — property rights, visitation rights," he said. "Why can't any two human beings — I don't care what their sexual orientation is — why can't they have the legal right to do those things? That does not require changing the definition of marriage."
Carson took to Facebook on Wednesday evening in an effort to clarify his position.
“In a recent interview on CNN, I realized that my choice of language does not reflect fully my heart on gay issues," his statement read. "I do not pretend to know how every individual came to their sexual orientation. I regret that my words to express that concept were hurtful and divisive. For that I apologize unreservedly to all that were offended.”
Carson went on to say in his statement that he has supported gay rights for years, but re-asserted that he believes that marriage is a religious arrangement.
"Religious marriage must only be governed by the church. Judges and government must not be allowed to restrict religious beliefs."
That position puts Carson at odds with a majority of the country. A Gallup poll conducted last year found 55 percent of Americans support recognizing same-sex marriages as legally valid.
Wednesday morning's remarks were not the first time Carson has voiced his controversial views on gays. In a 2013 interview with Fox News, Carson compared homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia.
“It’s a well-established, fundamental pillar of society and no group — be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality — it doesn’t matter what they are, they don’t get to change the definition [of marriage],” Carson said.
He was forced to cancel a commencement speech at Johns Hopkins University over those remarks.
On Tuesday, Carson became the second major Republican to form a presidential exploratory committee.
“I’ve decided to explore a potential run for the office of president because I believe my values, life experience, and willingness to speak the truth and seek solutions, prepares me well to lead our nation toward more prosperity, security, and freedom for every American,” he said in a statement.
A Fox News poll conducted in January put Carson (at 9 percent) fifth among possible GOP candidates, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (21 percent), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (11 percent), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (11 percent), and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (10 percent), ahead of him.
Carson is not the only possible 2016 GOP candidate to stir up controversy on the issue of same-sex couples.
Last month, Huckabee said homosexuality is a lifestyle choice like drinking and swearing — which is why he can accept friends who are gay, despite his religious convictions.
"People can be my friends who have lifestyles that are not necessarily my lifestyle," Huckabee said in an interview with CNN's "State of the Union." "I don't shut people out of my circle or out of my life because they have a different point of view. I don't drink alcohol, but gosh — a lot of my friends, maybe most of them, do. You know, I don't use profanity, but believe me, I've got a lot of friends who do. Some people really like classical music and ballet and opera — it's not my cup of tea."
Still, there's no chance the former Arkansas governor will ever accept gay marriage — whether he runs for president or not.
"This is not just a political issue," Huckabee said "It is a biblical issue. And as a biblical issue — unless I get a new version of the scriptures, it's really not my place to say, 'OK, I'm just going to evolve.'"
Asking a Christian to accept same-sex marriage, Huckabee said, is "like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli."