WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk reversed course Tuesday and announced his support for gay marriage, entering a contentious national debate and providing potential political cover for Illinois House GOP members who may soon vote on the issue back home.
"Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back — government has no place in the middle," Kirk, the state's highest-ranking Republican, said in a statement. While running for Senate in 2010, Kirk supported civil unions but opposed same-sex marriage.
The change of heart drew criticism from some social conservative groups that have clashed with the moderate Kirk. In explaining his rationale, Kirk referred to his comeback from a major stroke he suffered in 2012.
"When I climbed the Capitol steps in January," his statement said, "I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others. Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most."
Kirk declined Tribune requests for an interview. An aide said the senator's decision was personal — not political. Kirk, who is divorced and has no children, does not face re-election until 2016.
Kirk told the Illinois Radio Network that he was influenced in part by seeing the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln." As a Republican leader from Abraham Lincoln's home state, Kirk said, "my job is to make sure that each generation is more free and has more dignity."
The 53-year-old politician from Highland Park became the second Republican senator to endorse gay marriage after Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio last month. The highly charged and rapidly evolving issue was front and center last week when two cases on same-sex marriage were argued before the Supreme Court.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., also made public his support for gay marriage Tuesday. Delaware likewise is considering whether to legalize gay marriage, as nine states and the District of Columbia have done.
Kirk's record on gay rights has been mixed. While campaigning for Senate, Kirk endorsed the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The Supreme Court, after listening to oral arguments last week, appeared poised to strike down central provisions of the act.
While in the U.S. House, Kirk voted against the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," which had banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
A commander in the Navy Reserve, Kirk changed his vote after he was elected to the Senate in November 2010, becoming one of eight GOP lawmakers to vote in favor of repealing the ban. Still, he later turned down a White House invitation to attend a ceremony during which President Barack Obama signed the historic repeal into law.
In Illinois, the state Senate has approved a bill to legalize gay marriage. A state House vote could take place before the end of May, and Kirk's decision could provide some political cover for House Republicans inclined to support it. Only one state Senate Republican voted for the measure, and most House Republicans remain opposed.
Kirk's announcement also came days before Illinois' top GOP leaders meet over the fate of state Republican Chairman Pat Brady, who has been criticized by social conservatives for backing state legislation allowing same-sex marriage.
Kirk's camp has been strongly supportive of Brady keeping the state GOP's top job and actively lobbied Republican state central committee members on Brady's behalf. Kirk's staff also advised Brady to try to stay out of the public limelight immediately after the furor over his chairmanship erupted.
In Chicago, Paul Caprio directs the Coalition to Protect Children & Marriage, created in December by several conservative and religious groups to oppose legalizing gay marriage in Illinois. Caprio said Kirk is "well out of the mainstream of Republicans who elected him to office in 2010."
"For us, this is not about interfering with an individual's love for anyone," Caprio said. At issue, he said, is the right of children to be "raised in a loving and nurturing environment by two parents, male and female."
Caprio, who also heads the conservative Family PAC, has run automated telephone calls to constituents of Democratic lawmakers, accusing the politicians of taking campaign cash from "Chicago homosexuals." After the November election, in which Democrats took control of 40 of 59 state Senate seats, Caprio publicly called on state Senate GOP leader Christine Radogno of Lemont to step down. She didn't.
Equality Illinois, which advocates for gays and lesbians, highlighted Kirk's stature as the top Republican in the state. Kirk's support "should help Illinois House members in particular understand why their support of the measure (to legalize gay marriage) is the right thing to do," said Bernard Cherkasov, the group's CEO.