Louisiana’s Democratic U.S. senators in 1996, J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux, both voted in favor of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman and banned same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.
Nearly 17 years later, the Supreme Court is considering whether to strike down the law, called DOMA, and Johnston now says his feelings have evolved and that he supports allowing gay couples to marry.
“I have moved on with the most of the country, and I think it’s time to recognize gay marriage,” Johnston said. “We’ve come to realize people getting married — I’ve been married over 50 years — certainly doesn’t hurt my marriage.”
When he voted in support of the law, Johnston said he didn’t think he was being “anti-gay.” That was the culture and the morals of the time, he said.
Breaux said he doesn’t have a strong stance on the topic but that he recognizes the changing dynamics.
“I’ll just say I think there’s a difference between what states do and what churches do,” Breaux said, “... and I think that’s what’s developing now.”
The Supreme Court may strike down parts of DOMA and allow individual states to decide whether to allow gay couples to marry and, thus, receive federal benefits for married couples. But, Louisiana is unlikely to be affected unless there is a sweeping court decision.
While some national polling shows nearly 60 percent of people supporting gay marriage, close to 60 percent of Louisiana residents believe gay marriage should remain illegal.
Public Policy Polling data from February found that 59 percent of Louisiana residents want same-sex marriage to stay illegal, although more people were open to allowing for civil unions.
The Louisiana Legislature, likewise, has not been kind to gay marriage and, in 2004, a state constitutional amendment was approved that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Not surprisingly, there aren’t many, if any, Republican lawmakers from the state backing gay marriage. But very few Democratic elected officials in the state openly advocate for gay marriage.
Neither of the two Democratic members of the Louisiana congressional delegation —Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans — has come out in favor of same-sex marriage.
Landrieu has opposed federal constitutional amendments to define marriage as between a man and a woman under the argument that Louisiana’s Constitution already does that very thing. Richmond voted against an amendment to keep the U.S. Justice Department from actively opposing DOMA.
The Obama administration previously stopped enforcing DOMA and President Barack Obama came out in support of gay marriage last year.
Landrieu and Richmond, who will both face re-elections next year, prefer to avoid discussing the issue and they walk metaphorical tightropes when they do.
Landrieu recently told BuzzFeed Politics she would need to “think really carefully” about the issue moving forward.
“I feel very strongly that people should be allowed to love who they love, but unfortunately, my state has a very strong ban against gay marriage constitutionally, so I’m going to have to think really carefully and listen to the voters of my state about that issue,” Landrieu told the news website.
The Huffington Post website had a “Shame on Dem” headline this week for the 10 Democratic senators, including Landrieu, who do not openly support same-sex marriage.
Richmond declined an interview request on the topic last week, although he did reply in an email statement that he supports “equal rights” for all people. But he would not specifically comment on same-sex marriage and he would not respond to follow-up questions.
“I am a firm proponent of equal rights and support efforts to end prejudice against all human beings,” Richmond stated. “A person’s decision concerning who they commit their life to should be respected regardless of gender, race or sexual preference. Our collective goal as Americans should be to strive to treat all people with decency and fairness.”
Kirby Goidel, a political analyst and director of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, said Landrieu is unlikely to take a firm stance on the issue until 2015 – after her re-election.
“It’s an issue you probably don’t want to lead on (in Louisiana), but definitely not when you’re a senator in a re-election campaign,” Goidel said.
Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is email@example.com.