WASHINGTON — The increasingly delicate politics of gay marriage emerged Wednesday as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defended "traditional" marriage while accommodating other views during a speech and U.S. Rep. David Jolly came under withering attack in Pinellas County for speaking out in support of same-sex couples' right to wed.
Jolly, a Republican like Rubio, said this week that while he personally believes marriage should be between a man and woman, he thinks Florida should allow same-sex marriage.
"Please know that we consider your reversal on this critical issue to be an act of cowardice and a betrayal to the very persons that worked extremely hard to get you elected to office," read a tooth-bearing letter signed by some of Jolly's supporters and distributed by a group run by John Stemberger, an Orlando activist who led the 2008 campaign for Florida's ban on gay marriage.
"We call upon you to publicly apologize for this mistake and hold fast to your original position that states should define marriage as it has always been, the union of one man and one woman only. We also challenge you to not cower to the pressure, demands and intimidation of homosexual activists."
Jolly offered his position after a judge in South Florida last week overturned the state's 2008 voter-approved ban on gay marriage, the latest in what has become a cascade of victories for same-sex marriage advocates across the country.
Rubio addressed that ruling during a broader speech on family values at Catholic University in Washington. "Those who support same-sex marriage have a right to lobby their state legislatures to change state laws," he said. "But Americans like myself who support keeping the traditional definition of marriage also have a right to work to keep the traditional definition of marriage in our laws without seeing that overturned by a judge."
He predicted that before the speech was over, "I will be attacked as a hater, a bigot or someone who is anti-gay. This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy. Supporting the definition of marriage as one man and one woman is not anti-gay, it is pro-traditional marriage. And if support for traditional marriage is bigotry, then Barack Obama was a bigot until just before the 2012 election."
Yet despite that sharper tone, his message was nuanced. In making the case that states should decide, Rubio, who is considering a run for president in 2016, sought to create space for accommodating other views and he acknowledged growing public acceptance of gay marriage.
"We should acknowledge that our history is marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians. … Fortunately, we have come a long way since then. But many committed gay and lesbian couples feel humiliated by the law's failure to recognize their relationship as a marriage. And supporters of same-sex marriage argue that laws banning same-sex marriage are discrimination. I respect their arguments. And I would concede that they pose a legitimate question for lawmakers and for society."
He then morphed back into why he feels marriage should be between a man and a woman.Critics jumped on Rubio's words, saying he was on the wrong side of the issue. "@marcorubio's kinder, gentler discrimination isn't going to cut it," Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, said on Twitter.
Hogan Gidley, an operative who worked on religious conservative Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential bid, said Rubio's approach could present a problem in a GOP presidential primary, particularly in conservative Iowa and South Carolina.
"They're not satisfied with 'Marriage is one man, one woman unless your state decides otherwise.' They want you to be pushing what marriage is," said Gildey, who attended the speech.
The public debate is shifting, however, and some Republicans say it won't be long — though likely not 2016 — before the party presidential nominee embraces gay marriage.
A recent Washington Post story on national polling conducted in March concluded that while the issue is troublesome, "a gay marriage-supporting Republican still has between 50 and 60 percent of Republican primary voters who will give him or her a fair shake."
Like Rubio, Jolly says he personally believes marriage should be between a man and woman. But he cast same-sex marriage as "an issue of less government and personal liberty" and said "a state that embraces both same-sex marriage and traditional marriage is something that I support."
The issue did not get much attention during Jolly's special election to replace his former boss, the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young. But Jolly's now-detractors say he was clear. Jolly provided a lengthy letter Wednesday night to constituents wondering about his position on the issue.
"I personally believe as a matter of my Christian faith in traditional marriage," he wrote. "But as a matter of constitutional principle, I believe in a form of limited government that protects personal liberty, and therefore I believe all individuals, all couples should be allowed to determine the sanctity of their marriage by their own faith or their own beliefs of marriage. For those of us in the Christian faith community who believe in traditional marriage, I personally don't believe decisions a state government may make on marriage or civil unions should … be any threat to the sanctity of marriage. However, where a state stands in the way of someone … who believes in the institution of same-sex marriage, I believe such a restriction does compromise the doctrine of individual liberty that is at the very foundation of our Constitution."