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Once 'inconceivable,' Republican leaders sign pro-gay marriage brief

Supporters of same-sex marriage hope for a boost this week when dozens of high-profile Republicans, many no longer in office, submit their legal argument to the Supreme Court on why gays and lesbians should be allowed to wed, bucking their party's platform in a move that one who had a change of heart on the issue said would “strengthen our nation as a whole.”

More than 80 Republicans are signatories to the "friend of the Court" brief to be filed in the case over Proposition 8, a California law banning same-sex marriage, according to the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is waging the legal battle against the law. The nation’s high court will hear arguments in the case in late March. The New York Times first reported on the brief.

Credit: Stephen Lam / Reuters file

Meg Whitman, HP's chief executive officer and president, at a meeting on Jan. 16. She says she has had a change of heart on the issue of gay marriage.

One scholar described the effort as “inconceivable” just two years ago, and one of the signers, former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, said in a blog that she had changed her mind on the issue, “like several others who have either sought or held public office, including President Obama.”

“As the Republican nominee for governor of California three years ago, I supported the majority of Californians who voted for Proposition 8 and against same sex marriage,” Whitman, president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., said in a separate statement. “After careful review and reflection since then, I have come to embrace civil marriage for same sex couples.”

She noted in her blog that same-sex families “should have equal access to the benefits of marriage” and later added: “Establishing a constitutional right of marriage equality in California will strengthen our nation as a whole.”

Six former governors, including Jon Huntsman of Utah and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and members of President George W. Bush’s cabinet, such as former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, four former and two current members of Congress signed the brief, AFER said. Members of the Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain presidential campaigns also signed.

The brief will be filed Thursday, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. Additional names were still being added to it, said AFER, which noted one of its lead attorneys on the case was a conservative, former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, who argued for Bush before the Supreme Court after the disputed 2000 presidential election. 

Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor and author of “From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage,” called it an “incredibly important development” and noted the brief could influence Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom he said was the swing vote on gay marriage.

“The fact that more and more Republicans are coming out in favor of gay marriage simply confirms how dramatic the shift in public opinion has been -- and that is a fact that likely is of great significance to Justice Kennedy,” he wrote to NBC News in an email. “Even two years ago, it would have been inconceivable that this many prominent Republicans would have been willing to buck their party platform on the issue.”

In an article last week, former Republican presidential candidate Huntsman wrote that as governor he had backed civil unions but now was supporting marriage for gays and lesbians.

“The party of Lincoln should stand with our best tradition of equality and support full civil marriage for all Americans,” he wrote. “This is both the right thing to do and will better allow us to confront the real choice our country is facing: a choice between the Founders’ vision of a limited government that empowers free markets, with a level playing field giving opportunity to all, and a world of crony capitalism and rent-seeking by the most powerful economic interests.”

Huntsman’s argument echoed parts of the legal brief, which The Times said made the case that allowing same-sex marriage would promote conservative ideals of limited government and individual freedom as well as provide the children of gay couples a two-parent home.

The legal brief was dismissed by the National Organization for Marriage, which on Monday pledged $500,000 to defeat Republican lawmakers supporting any law to allow same-sex marriage in Minnesota, a state considering such legislation.

“None of these people are actively in politics. They are not running for office because they know … supporting same-sex marriage will end your career if you’re a Republican,” said Brian Brown, NOM's president. “There’s overwhelming support for traditional marriage in the Republican party, that’s why it’s part of the party platform, and any attempt by the establishment to redefine marriage and redefine what it means to be a conservative will mean the death of the Republican party.”

But LGBT groups said the brief was further proof of changing attitudes on the issue. Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry who saw the brief, said the list included Republicans going back to the Reagan administration.

He noted Meg Whitman’s new position represented a “significant shift,” while others who had signed, such as Republican Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Richard Hanna of New York, have also sponsored federal legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Steve Schmidt, who worked on the 2004 Bush re-election effort and as chief strategist on McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, has been a “powerful supporter” of same-sex marriage, Solomon said.

“I think most importantly, it’s the broad swath of leaders” on the list, Solomon told NBC News. “We’re no longer just dealing with … one or two ‘mavericks’ who are willing to sort of stick their neck out. …

“This is a big swath of Republicans, of mainstream Republicans, who view the freedom to marry as part of their conservatism rather than something separate from it.”

The Supreme Court will also hear arguments in late March on Section 3 of DOMA, which the Obama administration has encouraged the justices to strike down. In its argument, the federal government noted that Proposition 8 and similar measures in other states was evidence that anti-gay discrimination remained a major problem.

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