Following pressure from LGBT advocates, the senior senator from Florida on Thursday announced he supports marriage equality, according to a report in the Tampa Bay Times.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is quoted in the newspaper as looking to religion as part of his reasoning for supporting same-sex marriage.
“If we are endowed by our Creator with rights, then why shouldn’t those be attainable by gays and lesbians?” Nelson is quoted as saying. “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.”
The senator reportedly added he’ll add his name to the “petition of senators” calling on the U.S. Supreme Court “to declare the law that prohibits gay marriage unconstitutional.” That presumably refers to the amicus brief from 212 congressional Democrats asking the court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.
Nelson’s announcement means a total of 51 sitting U.S. senators have endorsed same-sex marriage. It also means only six Senate Democrats have yet to declare their support. They are U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-S.D.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.).
The Florida senator as recently as last week was opposed to same-sex marriage.
In a report from The Huffington Post identifying the Democratic U.S. senators who don’t support marriage equality, Nelson spokesperson Ryan Brown was quoted as saying, “Sen. Nelson strongly supports civil rights for same-sex couples, while believing marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
As more U.S. senators came out for marriage equality, LGBT advocates in Florida and elsewhere organized online pressure to encourage Nelson to change his mind. Equality Florida, a statewide LGBT rights group, on Tuesday organized a Twitterbomb for @SenBillNelson with the hashtag #TimeToEvolve.
The website MoveOn.org also launched a petition calling on Nelson to endorse marriage equality. As of the time the senator announced his change in position on Thursday, the petition had 4,945 signatures.
Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said she’s “thrilled” Nelson “has listened the voices of Floridians and to his own conscience.”
“The senator has an admirable record on so many issues that this blindspot stood out as incongruous to the principles he has espoused for years,” she said. “His voice matters a great deal and his evolution on equality is a roadmap for others to understand that it is wrong to inflict financial burdens and to impose the indignity of second class citizenship on our families.”
Nelson comes out for marriage equality in a state that has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and marriage-like unions. The measure, known as Amendment 2, was approved in 2008 by 62 percent of the state electorate. The senator was opposed to the amendment, but hadn’t declared support for marriage equality until now.
The Florida senator already had a strong record on LGBT issues in the U.S. Senate.
He was among the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who voted to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in May 2010, even before the Pentagon report on open service came out later that year. Despite his opposition to same-sex marriage, Nelson also voted against a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned it nationwide in 2004 and 2006.