WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson said this week that an awful lot of people seem to be changing their minds in favor of gay marriage, but he's not one of them.
Nelson told The World-Herald that he does not agree with President Barack Obama, who recently announced that he favors allowing same-sex marriages. Obama had said previously that his feelings on the issue were “evolving.”
“I understand this sort of evolution, where people are coming from, but apparently I haven't evolved,” said Nelson, the only Democrat in the Nebraska congressional delegation.
As a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nelson provided a key vote two years ago for overturning the military's controversial “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policy, paving the way for gay soldiers to serve openly.
Still, Nelson said this week that, for him, marriage remains an institution between a man and a woman. He added that many religions consider marriage a sacred rite and that he doesn't want to see those religious beliefs affronted. He also said same-sex couples have other avenues.
“There's civil unions and there's no prohibition against people being together, and you can contract with one another,” Nelson said.
Gay rights once again will intersect with the nation's military in the House as early as this week. House Republicans have included a ban on same-sex wedding ceremonies on military bases in the annual defense authorization bill.
The measure is expected to pass the House, but what happens in the Senate remains to be seen.
Nelson said he wasn't yet sure where he would come down on the specific issue of gay weddings on military bases but said he has other priorities when it comes to defense policy, like making sure that the nation is secure and that there is adequate funding to address cybersecurity and emerging threats.
Cindy Hall was among those who cheered when Nelson voted to overturn “Don't Ask Don't Tell.” The army veteran lived in Bellevue at the time and has since moved to Council Bluffs.
Hall served five years in the Army, including one year in Iraq. Her recruiter, commanders and others knew she was a lesbian, but it wasn't a big concern. The policy still prompted her to leave the military in 2008 because she worried that she might one day run into problems.
Hall said Wednesday that she hopes Nelson realizes that civil unions tend to lack key benefits such as health coverage that help gay couples care for one another and their families. She also raised the matter of hospital visitations.
“What if something happens and I died? My girlfriend wouldn't ... be able to do anything,” she said. “A lot of times they don't even let them be in the room with you.”
Hall was just accepted to veterinary school and is thinking about rejoining the Army.
She said politicians need to realize that gay couples just want the same rights as straight ones.
“If we were to go out and run, we don't ‘gay run.' We just run,” Hall said. “It's just ‘marriage,' not ‘gay marriage.'”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said the military base-prohibition is meant as an affirmation of current law under the Defense of Marriage Act.
“Marriage in its essence and nature is between a man and a woman, and that is affirmed across time and across culture as a fundamental principle of social organization for the benefit of men and women, but also for the benefit of children,” he said. “This is all said in the context where I believe that no one should have to live in fear, a fear of persecution.”
Rep. Lee Terry said he opposes gay marriage but said he trusts states to make their own decisions on the issue.
“If Massachusetts thinks it's appropriate, we shouldn't have the authority to stop them,” Terry said.
On the issue of gay marriage, a spokesman for Rep. Adrian Smith said simply that the congressman supports “traditional marriage.”
Republicans nationally say the ban on gay weddings at military bases is necessary to protect military chaplains from being forced to conduct ceremonies that go against their beliefs.
But Terry said he's disappointed that the gay marriage debate could distract from the bill's other provisions.
“The news will be more about gay marriage than the fact that our men and women in uniform will get a pay raise, (that) they'll get the equipment that they need and our veterans are taken care of,” Terry said.
Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, for his part, said he hadn't had a chance to examine the issue of gay weddings on military bases, though he is on record as opposed to gay marriage.
Obama's announcement in favor of gay marriage raised the prospect of it playing a role in the fall election, as it did in 2004. Many observers have suggested that it will be less of a factor.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday that the issue is not among voters' top priorities, given the high unemployment rate.
“The economy and jobs and the budget deficits — and they're kind of all tied together — is going to be what's on everybody's mind,” Grassley said.
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