COLUMBUS, Ohio (BP) -- Influential Sen. Rob Portman became the first sitting Republican U.S. senator to endorse same-sex marriage Friday (March 15), saying a development in his family led him to "wrestle" with his faith and decide that homosexuals should be allowed to marry.
In an opinion piece in The Columbus Dispatch, the senator from Ohio said two years ago his son Will, who was a freshman at Yale University at the time, disclosed to his parents that he is gay.
"He said he'd known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn't something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is," Portman wrote, adding that he and his wife Jane were proud of their son's honesty and courage.
"At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman," Portman wrote. "Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years."
The senator said he "wrestled with how to reconcile" his Christian faith with his desire for his son to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his two other children.
"Ultimately, it came down to the Bible's overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God," Portman wrote.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press Portman is wrong on his application of Scripture. Said Land, "The Bible does not condone a homosexual lifestyle, either in a committed relationship or in an uncommitted one."
"The Christian faith, for over 2,000 years now, has said that the overarching theme of love and compassion tells homosexuals the truth, and that is that God does not condone or accept homosexual behavior. That is quite clear in the New Testament, as well as the Old," Land said.
Portman served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before working for the George W. Bush administration as U.S. Trade Representative and later as the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
He was elected to the Senate in 2010. He emphasized Friday in interviews about his change of heart on same-sex marriage that his political career has focused on economics, not social issues. Portman has, however, voted as a conservative on social issues, including supporting the Defense of Marriage Act.
Portman was closely tied to Mitt Romney's campaign for president, helping with debate preparation and being strongly considered as a running mate.
Land said he's glad Portman was not the vice presidential nominee.
"I understand his reaction as a father and as a parent, but that's when you find out the difference between a preference and a conviction," Land said. "A chicken has a preference about breakfast. The pig has a conviction."
If one of Land's children had told him they were gay, he said, "I would have made it clear to them that their mother and I disagree with their lifestyle preference and did not approve it, and the Bible doesn't approve it, but we would also make it clear that he's our son or our daughter, and we would continue to love them and pray for them, and they are welcome in our home -- but they would not be welcome to spend the night with their partner in our home."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, commended Portman for his unconditional love for his son.
"Regardless of a child's choices, the love of a parent can and should be a guiding beacon in the lives of their sons and daughters. Unconditional love, however, does not mean unconditional support in choices that are both harmful to them and society as a whole," Perkins said.
In the public policy realm, unconditional love for children "should not override the historical and social science evidence which makes abundantly clear what is best for all children and for society -- being raised by a married mother and father," Perkins said.
Portman, in his Columbus Dispatch column, said that with the overwhelming majority of young people supporting same-sex marriage, "in some respects the issue has become more generational than partisan."
But Perkins noted that Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the youngest U.S. senators, "clearly articulated the need for natural marriage and the right of states to preserve it" during an address at the Conservative Political Action Conference March 14.
"Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot," Rubio, of Florida, said.
Portman told CNN he announced his new position now, even though he has known his son's status for two years, because he has recently become comfortable with his new belief and because the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in two cases related to gay marriage in about a week.
In his column, Portman made clear that the Supreme Court should not make gay marriage legal nationwide in one fell swoop.
"The process of citizens persuading fellow citizens is how consensus is built and enduring change is forged. That's why I believe change should come about through the democratic process in the states," Portman wrote.
Judicial intervention from Washington, Portman said, would circumvent that process. "An expansive court ruling would run the risk of deepening divisions rather than resolving them."
The Pew Research Center reported last fall that Democrats have become more supportive of same-sex marriage in the past decade, and support has risen recently among Independents. Most Republicans, though, continue to oppose same-sex marriage.
Perkins agreed with Portman that the Supreme Court should allow the debate about marriage to continue.
"As this debate goes on, we believe that most states will continue to conclude that marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces," Perkins said. "Marriage is rooted in the reality that children need a mother and a father."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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