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As Supreme Court arguments loom, McCaskill announces support for gay marriage

Updated: 2013-03-27T19:29:15Z

By STEVE KRASKE

The Kansas City Star

It was no coincidence that Sen. Claire McCaskill decided to take a public stand Sunday night in support of same-sex marriage.

Some people had been waiting for days outside the U.S. Supreme Court, where starting today the justices will take up a pair of cases with a range of potential consequences for gay marriage.

McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, was well aware.

“I’d been reading about the Supreme Court case all weekend, so it was on my mind,” she said in an interview Monday. “I thought, ‘Well, you know … I will just do this myself on a Sunday and post it, and then everyone will know that I believe it’s time that our country not discriminate against people based on who they love.’ ”

McCaskill published a four-paragraph post on her blog that delighted supporters of same-sex marriage but angered some Republicans, who accused her of switching positions now that she’s been re-elected.

In taking a stand, the two-term senator became one of the first Democrats who represents a Republican-dominated Heartland state to back gay marriage. In 2004, an amendment banning gay marriage in the Missouri Constitution passed with more than 70 percent support.

But McCaskill said times are changing.

“What’s really happening on this issue around the country is that more and more gay and lesbian couples are letting it be known that they are gay, and that they are in long-term committed relationships,” she said.

“I have many of those long-term committed realtionships among my staff, my friends and my colleagues. And it’s hard to look them in the eye and say somehow you deserve to be considered not as much of a family as a heterosexual couple. That’s really what those laws do: They diminish the dignity that these couples can enjoy.”

Last week, a national poll conducted for The Washington Post and ABC News found that support for same-sex marriage had hit an all-time high at 58 percent, with support having risen by 21 points over the last decade. In 2012, President Barack Obama came out in favor of gay marriage.

In Missouri, gay-rights groups applauded McCaskill’s announcement, saying it represented a significant step forward on an issue that continues to gain momentum.

“This is definitely where we’re heading,” said Mitch Levine, a spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of Greater Kansas City. “I think it’s fantastic.”

Jim MacDonald, the president of Four Freedoms, a Kansas City Democratic club that focuses on issues of importance to the gay community, said he was particularly thrilled because McCaskill “wasn’t vocally in favor of it before.”

McCaskill didn’t face many questions about the issue last year in her re-election race against Republican Todd Akin. In 2004, she said she opposed the Missouri constitutional amendment banning gay marriage but supported a state law that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

On Monday, Ed Martin, the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, criticized McCaskill for changing positions.

“Senator McCaskill's new position on marriage shows the worst side of modern American politics: say one thing back home when running for re-election and then do another when in Washington, D.C.,” Martin said. “McCaskill said clearly last year when asking for votes that she believed the issue was settled by Missourians in 2004. Now, only months after her re-election, she has changed her mind and (is) disregarding Missourians’ views.”

The Supreme Court will hear arguments today about California’s Proposition 8 , which bans same-sex marriage in the state. On Wednesday, the court will take up the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The federal law defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and therefore keeps legally married gay and lesbian Americans from collecting a range of federal benefits that generally are available to married people.

Rulings are not expected before late June.

Guaranteed seats at the court hearings have sold for up to $6,000 apiece more than the most expensive ticket to “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, which goes for $477, or the face value of a great seat for this year’s Super Bowl, which went for $1,250.

The tickets are technically free, but getting them requires lining up days or hours ahead or paying someone else to wait because seats for the public could be limited to about 50 .

For some people, putting a value on the seats is meaningless.

“It's just not possible,” said Fred Sainz a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization, which employed two people to stand in line starting Thursday.

Part of the reason the seats are so coveted is that the court bans TV cameras, so attending in person is the only way to see the justices at work. The court has said it will release transcripts of the hearings and audio recordings roughly two hours after the arguments in each case end, but advocates say that's no substitute for being there.

Seats are at a premium because there aren’t many. The courtroom holds about 500 people, but most seats are reserved for the lawyers arguing the case, court staff, journalists and guests of the justices . After those people are seated, there are seats reserved for lawyers who are members of the Supreme Court bar and at least 50 seats for the public. Tickets for those seats are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.

The justices might come out with rulings that are simple, clear and dramatic, or they might opt for ones that are narrow and legalistic. The court could strike down dozens of state laws that limit marriage to heterosexual couples, but it could uphold gay marriage bans or say nothing meaningful about the issue at all.

On Sunday night, McCaskill posted her new position on her blog, under a headline that referenced a Bible verse from Corinthians: “And now abide faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

She wrote that her view had changed over time.

“But as many of my gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and staff embrace long-term committed relationships, I find myself unable to look them in the eye without honestly confronting this uncomfortable inequality,” she wrote.

“Supporting marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is simply the right thing to do for our country — a country founded on the principals of liberty and equality.”

The senator said good people disagree with her.

“On the other hand, my children have a hard time understanding why this is even controversial,” she wrote. “ History will agree with my children.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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