Flashback: When even liberals backed ‘traditional marriage’

Even as Democratic lawmakers rush to announce their support for gay marriage, a look back at the congressional debate over the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 shows they haven't always championed the rights of same sex couples.

In historic gay marriage arguments before the Supreme Court this week, justices noted comments made by congressional Republicans about DOMA, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. Justice Elena Kagan quoted the House report on the law at the time, which said its purpose was to express "moral disapproval" of homosexuality. She suggested that if lawmakers were "infected" by animus toward an unpopular minority group when they passed the law, it could put DOMA on constitutionally shaky ground.

McClatchy has collected some of the more virulent comments made at the time by Republican lawmakers. But Democrats weren't exactly gay marriage champions at the time either, and while they avoided the rhetoric espoused by their conservative colleagues, few took to the floor to argue that the bill was discriminatory.

Then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., spoke against DOMA, saying it was unnecessary and an intrusion into states' rights to define marriage. But he emphasized his own opposition to gay marriage before expressing reservations about the bill.

"I am not for same-sex marriage. I have said that publicly. I would not vote for same-sex marriage," Kerry, now U.S. secretary of state, said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California made a similar point. "I personally believe that the legal institution of marriage is the union between a man and a woman," she said. "But, as a matter of public policy, I oppose this legislation."

Republicans were definitely more forceful in their opposition.

Then-Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said he and his constituents believe "homosexuality is immoral, that it is based on perversion, that it is based on lust." Coburn was elected to the Senate in 2004.

"Homosexuality has been discouraged in all cultures because it is inherently wrong and harmful to individuals, families and societies," then-Rep. David Funderburk of North Carolina said.

A few lawmakers suggested American civilization would collapse if it accepted homosexuality.

DOMA passed Congress with large, bipartisan support: 85 votes in the Senate and 342 votes in the House. Democratic President Bill Clinton, facing re-election, signed it into law in the middle of the night. (Earlier this month, he disavowed the legislation.) At the time, the vast majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage.

Seven years later, when Republicans launched an effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to exclude same-sex couples from the definition of marriage, Democrats argued against the move while stressing their belief that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples.

In the video from Slate's Dave Weigel, above, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Dick Durbin, who both recently endorsed same-sex marriage, said they were opposed to taking a drastic step of amending the Constitution. But they both elaborately declared their opposition to same-sex marriage, with Clinton praising "the fundamental bedrock principle that it exists between a man and woman going back into the mists of history."

Democrats' position has changed extraordinarily fast since then, with President Barack Obama announcing his own support for gay marriage during the 2012 election campaign and calling for equality for "our gay brothers and sisters" in his inaugural address. Only 10 of the 55 Democratic senators now do not back gay marriage.

Republican lawmakers have been far slower to embrace gay marriage. Rob Portman of Ohio became the first sitting Republican senator to support gay marriage earlier this month, when he revealed in an op-ed that his position changed after his son came out as gay. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski may be next: She said earlier this week that her position is "evolving."

The shift has dovetailed with a dramatic reversal of public opinion on the issue. Recent polls show a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, compared with less than 30 percent in 1996.