Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, previously an opponent of gay marriage, is switching his position in the wake of pressure on the issue from the liberal side of the Democratic Party.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Nelson said he will add his name to a petition of senators asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as male-female only.
In the statement, Nelson cited religious and civil rights grounds for his new stance.
"It is generally accepted in American law and U.S. society today that all Men are created equal. … The civil rights and responsibilities for one must pertain to all,” Nelson wrote.
"Thus, to discriminate against one class and not another is wrong for me.
"If we are endowed by our Creator with rights, then why shouldn't those be attainable by Gays and Lesbians?” Nelson said. "Simply put, if The Lord made homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, why should I discriminate against their civil marriage? I shouldn't, and I won't.”
As recently as last week, Nelson had stood by his opposition to allowing gay marriage, or “marriage equality” as advocates call it, while most Democrats in Congress – including all other Democrats in Florida’s congressional delegation – took positions in favor.
“I’ve always stood up for civil rights and I support civil unions, but I believe the institution of marriage is between a man and a woman," he said then.
But Nelson has become increasingly isolated on the issue as opinion has shifted rapidly in recent months toward support for allowing gay marriage.
Spokesmen for Florida gay rights organizations and the Progressive Caucus of the state Democratic Party said they were urging members to contact Nelson and ask him to reconsider his position.
They muted criticism of Nelson, however, noting in some cases that he has taken strong stands on other civil rights issues, particularly voting rights. Nelson is the senior Democratic elected officeholder in Florida and the only Democrat holding a statewide office.
The liberal-oriented Huffington news and opinion website, which has been tracking Congress members’ stances on the issue, reported last week that Nelson was one of only 10 Senate Democrats remaining opposed. As of Thursday, with Nelson’s switch, it said that number was down to six.